What One Soccer Game Says About the Zany World of Georgian Politics

The game opened with a ditty by the prime minister's rapper son, naturally.
georgia energy minister.jpg
Genoa's Kakha Kaladze, who is now energy minister of the Republic of Georgia, receives a red card from referee Domenico Celi during their Italian Serie A soccer match against AC Milan at the Luigi Ferraris stadium in Genoa on December 2, 2011. (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)

In Europe, the lines between sports and politics are often blurred, but one soccer match last week in Georgia took that to a new extreme.

Last Friday, the country's energy minister took the field in front of an oversold crowd as he played in a match in which one player dropped out beforehand over an ethnic dispute and a recently-released political prisoner scored on a penalty shot.

The event opened with a concert of no less than four songs by Ivanishvili's albino rapper son, Bera, who, through heavy autotune and garbling speakers serenaded the more than 50,000 assembled with melodies punctuated by English lyrics like "where the girls in the itty bitty bikini [sic]?"

Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze is the most successful Georgian soccer player in a generation. Before running for Parliament last year, the 35-year-old retired from 11 years playing for Italian clubs Genoa CFC and AC Milan, winning two Champions League titles in the process.

To officially mark his retirement from soccer one year later, the prime minister's administration organized a tribute game in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, pitting European soccer icons against a team of Kaladze's compatriots. Team "Milan Glorie" included all-stars like Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko, 53-year-old Italian legend Franco Baresi, and it was coached by this season's most sought-after manager, Carlo Ancelotti. Opposing them in white jerseys was a team called "Kaladze's Friends."

Kaladze himself captained both teams, playing for Milan in the first 40 minutes and then moving over to play with his Georgian "Friends" after half time, while the game was still tied. His defection seemed to help. "Kaladze's Friends" conceded two goals in the 71st and 74th minutes with the titular player on their side to go down 3-1 before he was subbed out in the 77th, effectively ending the game in an explosion of flares, fireworks, confetti, and a speech by the prime minister.

But while the match captured the attention of the small Caucasus nation, it comes at a time when the country as a whole is under the increasingly scrutinous gaze of the international community.

Since the new government led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition took over last fall, it has drawn criticism from Western organizations and governments -- most recently for failing to protect pro-LGBT rights demonstrators from an angry mob and for arresting the country's top opposition leader.

Last month, Ivanishvili made a politically risky statement for conservative Georgia by declaring sexual minorities to be "equal citizens" and that "society will gradually get used it" ahead of a planned demonstration on the International Day Against Homophobia. But police arrived at the demonstration outnumbered and without batons or other crowd control equipment despite the expectation of a counter protest. In a country where the Orthodox Church wields considerable influence and priests are revered, the police put up little resistance as the estimated crowd of 20,000 led by clergymen turned violent and chased the activists through the streets, smashing up buses they used to try and escape.

Twenty-eight people were injured in the violence, but just eight alleged perpetrators -- including two priests -- have since been charged, all on small offenses. Another assailant who allegedly punched a female opposition MP in the face in a separate but similar security breakdown in February got off with probation.

Observers have also expressed concerns that the current government is waging its own campaign of vengeful, selective justice against its defeated opponents.

Since the elections, the government has charged dozens of ex-officials including the former ministers of health, defense, interior, and justice with crimes mostly relating to abuses of power and corruption during the campaign period. The highest-profile arrest, however, came two weeks ago when former prime minister and potential presidential candidate Vano Merabishvili was arrested for embezzling state funds and ordering excessive force against opposition protesters.

Joao Soares, chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, criticized Merabishvili's arrest, saying in a statement that "putting your political opponents behind bars will not help solve any problems, on the contrary, it will create new ones."

But, popular discontent with perceived overreaches by the country's previous Interior Ministry and videos alleging to show brutal torture in prisons were a critical factor in propelling the Georgian Dream coalition to power.

Kaladze's farewell match itself was hardly free from political connections. For one, the lone goal for Kaladze's Friends was scored by Giorgi Demetradze, who had been jailed for extortion by the previous regime and spent two and a half years behind bars before the Georgian Dream government declared him a political prisoner and released him as a part of a wide amnesty that freed about half of the country's prison population in January.

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Nicholas Clayton is a writer living in Georgia.

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