Any observer of the Georgian political landscape is quick to understand that business and politics are a volatile mixture. One only has to revisit the great political essay “Shame of the Cities” (1904) by Lincoln Steffens to know how the two cannot exist in the same place. With a quick turn of the shovel you can find a “not-so-hidden-agenda” with any politician, especially one who claims to be honest.
Chronicling the bribery and corruption that plagued many American municipalities, from St. Louis to New York, Steffens argued way back in 1904 that Americans had to shed their propensity for ethnic stereotyping and scapegoating if they ever hoped to effectively reform their government. As he put it then, concerning businessmen in politics, “he is a self-righteous fraud, this (big business) man … the chief source of corruption, and he should stay out of politics, as politics is business—and that is what the matter is with it.”
Now we are presented with the former Mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetskyi, and his, in the opinion of many, sordid and checkered past. Some pundits, including those on the payroll of NED, consider that his model for Georgia’s development would restructure the country to fit a Swiss model—but what is being offered is something between a Swiss clock and a Swiss bank account.
Lots of promises are being made by this Johnny-Come-Lately to Georgia, such as “I promise to work towards supporting every single person who is unemployed or retired and those who don’t know what they will eat tomorrow.” This sounds like ‘chicken-in-every-pot’ campaign rhetoric, and claims of his altruistic motives are hard for many to swallow.
Nonetheless, let’s not jump to hasty conclusions before we look at what is being said about him, and what comes out of his own mouth. It does appear that he is not going back to his native Ukraine and has settled in Georgia for various reasons. He admits to having had problems Ukraine but does not describe them in detail. Press stories claim that he was involved in an accident which took the life of an 11-year old child and also bank fraud, money laundering and weapons dealing, but these are allegations best left to the courts, although doubtless the international mainstream media will expand upon them when the timing is just right.
When interviewed by the Georgian media on his thoughts on Ukraine, he back-steps and gives us a bit of commentary but nothing new. For example,
“I was very surprised that Victor Yanukovich was able to escape from Ukraine, but I never expected things to turn out there as they have. You can never trust such people, but this confirms that [apparently as a leader] he never was a coward. I do believe that he had many opportunities to prevent what happened in Kiev.” News agency: December, 2015:
But his political life, and a twist of fate, are probably what first brought him to Georgia. In 2000 he became a member of the party “For Beautiful Ukraine”, but his political career didn’t work out as a result of the aforementioned car accident in 2003, which resulted in the death of two people, including 11-year old Maksim Prokupsik. Chernovetskyi has always maintained that this accident was connected to the government, claiming they provoked it to discredit him.
He moved to Georgia in 2010 and established a branch of his charity foundation Social Partnership in Kobuleti on the Georgian Black Sea Coast. Georgians know little about him, other than what appears to be paid PR. But he once had a confrontation with the Ministry of Health and Labour here. He had established a a boarding school in Kutaisi but, according to Georgian law, there are no boarding schools in Georgia as there is a policy of de-institutionalisation.
Only “family-like small houses” are allowed. Although Chernovetskyi has such a children’s house in Tbilisi, he ended up having to pay a 3,000 GEL (1,250 USD) fine over the Kobuleti school. The reason is that he constructed As recently as 2014 Nanuka Zhorzholiani, a relatively famous Georgian TV journalist, made a TV programme about him. She dedicated an entire program to his story. Zhorzholiani is the ex-wife of Erekle Kodua, who is famous on his own account for being involved with political figures and having been charged with various crimes, including drug offences. Only recently were these warrants dropped by Interpol, which argued that in all likelihood he was wanted because of his political network and was not guilty as alleged.
In 2015 Leinod announced his intention to become involved in Georgian politics. He even went so far as to name his new party, “For Happy Georgia” (in contrast to the ruling ‘Georgian Dream’, a name which now evokes a grim emotional response in some.)
When those living close to his seaside villa are asked about his links with the local community their answers are odd, especially as they relate to a person apparently so altruistic towards Georgia and its plight. The locals are not in touch with him, and he also has little contact with them; apparently, all they know is that at the billionaire Chernovetskyi from Ukraine lives on the outskirts of Kobuleti. They see his wonderful house and this is all, explain several locals.
When one Kobuleti local was asked about Chernovetskyi’s wife and family, they responded that:
“I have no information about that, as they are not social they don’t interact with locals. His family affairs are held very close. But I know he is a friend of Temur Chkhonia, the head of Georgian Coca Cola, and approximately 50 million USD [the money used to get Coke started in Georgia] was siphoned off Turkish development money during Shevardnadze’s regime.
“I worked in his hotel for some time, and I remember Chernovetskyi used to book the whole hotel to hold his events, and that was rather expensive. I also know that Chernovetskyi asked Chkhonia to provide sporting goods which came from the hotel. People don’t know much about him but there is a suggestion that he was deported from Ukraine and Georgia is sheltering him. There are rumours that he had a Georgian-Jewish wife whose father helped him establish a business in Kiev and this was his road to riches. Later they parted ways and he showed up in Georgia, with a Georgian passport in hand, in spite of the fact he does not speak Georgian.”
The locals also see Chernovetskyi’s apparently paid-for articles and interviews in the Georgian media and understand that none of this publicity is for free. They generally welcome his charity organisation, but as one added, “The bad thing about his charitable activities is that normally these kinds of organisations are used for fame and PR only. People have started talking about his plans, and everyone knows that he will somehow find a way to participate in the elections in Kobuleti this coming year”.
Chernovetskyi was recently quoted in the English language media in Tbilisi as saying, “I’ve been all round the world and haven’t seen a country more congenial for ordinary citizens and businessmen than Switzerland. This is how I imagine a happy Georgia – a second Switzerland. I will ask the new Parliament to simply copy and implement that country’s main social and business laws; no invention will be necessary!”
But the jury is still out on who this man really is and what his motivation is for showing up in Georgia. Perhaps some of his own statements best speak for his views, such as how he sees Georgia as happy, at least in terms of the choice of name of his party. This is not a picture most Georgians recognise, and they are not looking to wake up from either dream or nightmare, as for them the only outcomes on offer are one and the same.
Chernovetskyi claims that Georgia is amongst the five safest countries in the world, and in fact Europe’s safest, if you want to trust the BBC. He has said how …“I feel much more protected here; I don’t even need bodyguards. I can walk along the street in Tbilisi without protection without fear that someone will attack or rob me. Here people [Georgians] treat you in accordance with what you have achieved before… people here are very unselfish.
“For instance, one day I crossed the river in my Jeep and suddenly the water level increased and my car started to drown in the water. Somehow we managed to crawl out of the window, which was open, and survive but the locals who were nearby decided to help us and they somehow saved the car. I wanted to give them money, I had dollars with me, but none of them would accept any money.”
All this creates a very nice picture of Georgia which we are intended to transfer to Chernovetskyi himself. But one of the reasons the locals wouldn’t accept his money is that they were doing exactly as he said – treating him in accordance with what he had achieved before. One persistent story about Chernovetskyi is that his dollars are not wet from rivers but from money laundering. This is the story likely to be told in the not-too-distant future.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.