Accessibility links

Breaking News

Georgia Storm Victims Receive Flood Of Attention In Campaign Season

Aid groups have called the hailstorm "the largest disaster in Georgia since the August 2008 conflict" with Russia.
Aid groups have called the hailstorm "the largest disaster in Georgia since the August 2008 conflict" with Russia.
Days after a fierce hailstorm destroyed millions of dollars in crops and property in eastern Georgia, residents in the region may feel they have little to be thankful for.

The July 19 storm pulled down power lines, battered vineyards and rooftops, and killed hundreds of chickens and other livestock caught outside during the deluge.

Aid groups have called it "the largest disaster in Georgia since the August 2008 conflict" with Russia.

But some calendar-watchers are suggesting it could have been worse. The crisis, after all, could have come in a nonelection season.

Georgia is mere months away from key parliamentary elections that will set the stage for next year's presidential vote as two-term incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili prepares to step down.

And to some, the flurry of relief efforts on both sides of the political divide is taking on the appearance of a campaign blitz ahead of the October elections.

Extra Motivation

Saakashvili has paid multiple visits to the worst-hit region of Kakheti to assess the damage. Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, touring one devastated vineyard, pledged to distribute wine to the victims.

Alexander Rondeli, the head of the Georgian Foundation of Strategic and International Studies, says the government is often quick to respond to issues of national crisis but acknowledges the upcoming election may be providing extra motivation.

PHOTO GALLERY: Fierce hailstorm batters eastern Georgia

"When there's a disaster, the government always tries to react immediately, because it's a small country and rumors and information that there's no support and no help can spread very quickly," Rondeli says. "And this time the government is especially active, maybe because of the elections. Because elections are near and the governing political force is thinking about its image among the population."

Some of the gestures have been bizarre. The head of the state audit service, Kakheti native Levan Bezhashvili, stepped down from his post a year early, citing his desire to aid in relief efforts.

But even that paled in comparison to opposition figure Bidzina Ivanishvili, who this week deposited 80 million lari -- nearly $50 million -- into Georgia's state coffers, saying the money should be spent on storm relief.

'No Possibility To Help'

Announcing the move on Facebook on July 24, Ivanishvili said his Georgian Dream coalition would track the funds to ensure they are spent on aid to storm victims.

Ivanishvili's coalition is seen as presenting the most formidable challenge to Saakashvili's National Movement in both the parliamentary and the presidential votes.

Earlier in the week he characterized his offer as an attempt to circumvent government attempts to hamstring him and his coalition at a time of desperate public need.

"I have no possibility to help thousands of disaster victims," said Ivanishvili, whose metals and banking interests have earned him an estimated fortune of $6.4 billion. "Even if I deliver medicines, the authorities will qualify it as vote-buying."

Authorities, in fact, may be eager to qualify the billionaire's payout not as vote-buying but as fine-paying.

Ivanishvili's 80 million laris is roughly equivalent to a fine imposed by the government on the Georgian Dream leader for allegedly violating party-funding rules.

Dismissing the charges as illegal, Ivanishvili refused to pay the fine when it was first imposed in June. The government responded by seizing a bank affiliated with the billionaire.

Authorities now say the bank will be returned and the transaction registered as a simple exercise in debt repayment.

Ivanishvili's move comes as the parliament on July 25 is expected to approve a 162-million-lari budget ($97.5 million) earmarked for immediate and long-term storm relief.

Authorities have offered no assurance that Ivanishvili's payment will be directed toward relief efforts.

Increased Scrutiny

Deputy speaker Mikheil Machavariani, a leading member of the National Movement party, took pains to stress that Ivanishvili would have no control over how his funds would be used.

"A lot of companies are fined and they pay those fines into the state budget, and where these fines go is determined by the budget law," Machavariani says. "[Ivanishvili's] decision has proven once again that the fine was justified and it has been paid. It was evident that this was aimed at getting the bank back. But since we're in the middle of an election campaign, everyone is trying to use things for their own purposes."

Ivanishvili's role as a powerful, if uncharismatic, counterpoise to Saakashvili's ruling party has increased scrutiny on the government's stated commitment to democracy.

Amnesty International this week issued a stinging report on a series of violent attacks leveled against Georgian Dream activists and journalists covering their events.

The report notes "stringent regulatory and other mechanisms have been employed to control the political and financial activities" of the coalition.

But to analysts like Rondeli, Ivanishvili's 80-million-lari payment seems less a capitulation and more an attempt to capitalize on an opportunity to earn some voter goodwill.

"He wants to kill two birds with one stone: To show himself as a benefactor to the population and at the same time to pay the fine," Rondeli says. "From the very beginning he said he wouldn't pay the fine because it's illegal. [But now] he's calculated that it would be good publicity for him. But I don't think it will change the proportions of supporters on either side a lot."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.