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Saakashvili’s First Televised Phone-in
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 23 Jan.'09 / 23:16

In the first-ever live televised question and answer session with the public on January 23 President Saakashvili spoke on social problems, opposition, former allies, war with Russia and also on what he was SMSing to ailing Prime Minister and Parliamentary Chairperson.

The Q&A session, involving questions posed by phone, text messages, e-mail and some through live satellite link-up, lasted slightly over four hours – hour more than initially announced. Seating in the public TV’s studio in presence of audience, the President also answered questions asked by a group of journalists from print media, who were present in a studio of another national television station of Rustavi 2 TV. 

Russia

During the session, resembling one hosted by Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, annually, President Saakashvili mentioned his former Russian counterpart and now powerful PM for several of times.

In one instance, Saakashvili said Georgia had no enemy like Putin since Shah Abbas – Abbas I, the Shah of Persia notorious in Georgia for his invasion of Georgia's eastern region of Kakheti in the early 17th century. And in another case, Saakashvili said: “Even if we imagine that Putin’s dream comes true and Igor Giorgadze is here [imposed as the Georgia’s leader], the Georgian people would not tolerate it because we are freedom-loving nation.” He also said that Putin’s Russia was using the similar methods, like the Soviet Union was resorting against “Reagan’s America.”

In a pre-recorded video question a woman, who said was an internally displaced person from Abkhazia, asked the President about his pre-election promise to reunited Georgia before his presidential term expires in 2013. Some of the opponents of the President have been recently calling on Saakashvili to publicly admit that he had lost a chance to reunite Georgia after the August war.

Responding to this question Saakashvili said: “I want to say that my presidential term expires in 2013 and until 2013 the entire Georgian state will work to achieve our main desire, our main dream and to restore the key principle of the law regarding Georgia – to de-occupy Georgia and settle the conflicts peacefully.”

He also said that Russia still wanted “to have a reason” to again attack Georgia, “but they will fail”; he, however, also said that amid “collapse of the Russian economy” he though chances were slim for renewed Russian aggression. “But such probability of course always exists,” Saakashvili added.

“Day and night they are thinking about publishing something terrible about Saakashvili trying to confirm that he is crazy; to cause internal mess in Georgia and to discredit us in international press,” Saakashvili said. “Our war will be over when occupies leave the Georgian soil. Our struggle continues.”

Saakashvili said that the August war was “a huge tragedy” including for him personally.

He slammed those who were using term “the August events” and said “it was war… the struggle for our freedom, which still continues.”

He downplayed a wave of criticism about striking, so far legally non-binding, deal with Russian state-controlled electricity trader, Inter RAO, over joint management of the Enguri hydro power plant. “Inter RAO controls Telasi [an electricity distributor company in Tbilisi]; so what?” he said. Saakashvili defended the deal by saying that it would guarantee unhindered electricity supply from the plant, dam of which his located on the Georgian side of the Abkhaz administrative border and generators on the Abkhaz-controlled area.

Opposition, Former Allies

Responding a question why some of his former key allies went into the opposition, Saakashvili said not a single of them quit the authorities “on their own will.” “They have been dismissed,” Saakashvili said and added that those politicians started to attack him only after they were sacked. “Have you ever heard them speaking out while being in the government?” Saakashvili said.

He said in general it was “normal process,” because “the ruling team” was united around key principles and there was no place in the team for those not following those principles.

“Our team is very solid,” Saakashvili said. “The principles of this ruling group have not changed for already five years. What are these principles – there should be no corruption and nobody can say in Georgia that the ruling team is corrupted. Nobody can ever say that there is a ruling team in Georgia, which does not listen to its people and does not serve its people. This is not a clan loyal to personally Saakashvili.”

“If somebody fails to adapt to these principles, he should be dismissed from the government immediately,” he added.

He said that options for future career of those politicians, who have quit the government, were limited ranging from, as he put it, “growing cabbage” or writing memoirs to going into opposition. Here he mentioned Nino Burjanadze, a former parliamentary chairperson, and said “she is a young woman,” suggesting that it was early for her to start writing memoirs.

“But it seems that these people have poor memory and sometimes they do not remember facts and therefore it is better if they do not write memoirs,” Saakashvili said jokingly.

He also said that he had not met with Irakli Alasania after the latter’s resignation from the post of the Georgia’s UN envoy. Alasania said in December that he had resigned because of differences over fundamental issues with President Saakashvili.

Saakashvili said that he had not met with Alasania, because his goal was not “to stir political intrigues, but the key task is to ensure that the global economic crisis does not come into our country.”
 
He also spoke about those opposition parties, which have no representation in the Parliament and said that they were always very happy when “we dismiss a footballer, who cannot kick a goal” – referring to those figures who were his administration members, but were, as he puts it, dismissed.  

“The opposition has announced a tender on selecting a leader,” he continued, suggesting that the opposition had no competitive leader. “There is a political force in the country [referring to the opposition], which says that they are looking for the leader – and they are still surprised that they have problems.”

Saakashvili adhered to his line of giving the opposition parties in the Parliament more weight by saying that “major political battle is ongoing in the Parliament.”

“The parliamentary opposition is the most popular political force after the ruling party according to all the recent public opinion surveys,” he added.

He dismissed critics’ allegations about lack of freedom of media and said Georgia was “European democracy.” He also said that his indicator of freedom of media was whether the opposition was able to deliver its message to the voters across the country.

“Let’s imagine that I am [Giorgi] Gugava [of the opposition Labor Party], [Kakha] Kukava [of the opposition conservative party] or someone else from the opposition and I wake up in the morning and think now that I should tell the population about my night dream. How many people in Georgia will know about Gugava’s dreams – at least one half of the population, who is watching TV.”

“When they [opposition politicians] say on TV that we have not freedom of speech – and they are saying it while speaking live on the television – it is ridiculous [to claim that there are problems with media freedom],” Saakashvili said.

He was asked to comment on his remarks in an interview with the New York Times where he was quoted: “If I had been in the opposition, I would have destroyed this government in three months.”

Saakashvili said he did not say so.

“I told the New York Times that I could not have toppled the government, although I would have created problems to the government in three months,” Saakashvili said, adding that he never said he would have “destroyed” the government if he was in the opposition. “Sensing that the opposition was little bit sad, I decided to make them joyous and I resorted to a joke while speaking with the New York Times.”

He reiterated that no early elections would be held. “I am not planning either to die or to resign,” Saakashvili said; his remarks were followed by applause from the audience present in the studio.

He said that the 2007 November events and consequent early presidential and parliamentary elections had “caused catastrophic damage” to the country’s economy. He said that as a result of those developments Georgia had lost foreign investments worth of USD 2 billion. “That is why today I think that my decision to resign at that time was a mistake,” Saakashvili said and also acknowledged that lack of dialogue with the society prior to the November events was also the authorities’ mistake.

Responding Press Speculation on PM

Asked about the press speculation about his alleged brawl with PM Grigol Mgaloblishvili, Saakashvili said it was just a rumor. According to this speculation, medical examination was a pretext for PM Mgaloblishvili’s departure to Germany twice this month, while the real reason allegedly was his desire to resign following the reported incident with the President. Saakashvili said that there were “some people spending day and night creating” this type of rumors.

He also spoke about health problems of Davit Bakradze, the Parliamentary Chairman, and told the public about how they were joking on the matter through exchange of SMS. Saakashvili then picked his cell phone from a suit pocket and read out SMS, which he said, exchanged with the Parliamentary Chairperson and the Prime Minister, when they were undergoing medical treatment.

“This is what Davit Bakradze sent to me,” he said and read out SMS: “They [doctors] have pricked me up, drilled and shaved me, hung on me something, took my blood, tortured me – shortly speaking this place appears to be like the Parliament.” Saakashvili said that he had forwarded this SMS to the PM “in order to comfort him somehow and told him that he was not the only one in such a condition.” “And this is what Gega [a short form of the PM’s first name] replied to me: ‘He [Bakradze] seems to take his illness very creatively and his parliamentary activities - very masochistically.”

He then continued on the matter and said with smile on his face: “As far as I and some other figures are in good health condition no large-scale collapse threatens to the Georgian government.”

New U.S. Administration

Saakashvili said that he did not expect change of level of U.S. support under the new administration.

“I liked Obama’s [inauguration] speech very much,” he said. “In private conversations Obama often compares himself with Ronald Reagan. This is a very promising thing for me. I had a very warm conversation with him after his election and I plan to talk with him again some of these days.”

“For us strong America is a natural ally in all circumstances. Unfortunately by the end of the Bush administration, the United States was perceived by Europe and Russia as extremely weak.”

He said that “of course address by weakened Bush” in August helped to stop the Russian tanks from moving into Tbilisi. “Strong America is much effective partner for Georgia. I am very optimistic in this regard,” he added.

Economic Difficulties

President Saakashvili spoke of social and economic issues for a first hour of the Q&A session, responding questions ranging from unemployment to water supply problems in remote rural areas.

“Georgia is not only besieged by the armed enemy, but by the global economic crisis as well,” he said and added that this global crisis had not yet hit the country and the goal was to prevent the current economic difficulties from growing into the crisis.

Comparing situation in Georgia with the one in Russia, he said that in Russia budgetary arrears reach 30%, while in Georgia the budgetary system “is firm and there have not been problems in this regard even during the war.”

Asked when the monthly pension would amount to USD 100, as promised by the authorities, Saakashvili responded: “USD 100 is part of the 50-month project, which is delayed because of the war and the global economic crisis, but this program will definitely be implemented.”

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