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The long-time chairperson the Georgian Labour Party, Shalva Natelashvili, has been accused of staging a fake interview with a street vendor to highlight the ‘unjust policies’ of the ruling Georgian Dream Party. On 30 August, the party summoned journalists to meet Ucha Gogiberidze, who Natelashvili claimed was a struggling fruit and vegetables seller, however Gogiberidze later turned out to be a party activist.
The accusations emerged on Thursday after POSTV, a satirical government-leaning online TV channel, claimed Netelashvili had staged the entire thing. POSTV also accused the Labour Party of being in a secret alliance with former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and enjoyed media attention from Rustavi 2 for such ‘staged’ news.
While interviewing Gogiberidze in front of journalists, Natelashvili said it highlighted ‘Ivanishvili’s unjust policies’ towards petty trading on streets. Gogiberidze complained he had been warned by the authorities to stop selling his agricultural products outdoors, and said this was the sole source of income for his family. Natelashvili vowed to support him, and blasted the government for ‘banning’ Georgian farmers from ‘selling agricultural products from their own cars’.
Natelashvili, who is running for president in October’s elections, said that ‘If I am elected, I will put limits on the import of agricultural products from foreign countries and on unjust competition for our farmers’.
Gogiberidze has several Facebook pages, including one public page in which he is indicated to be a politician. He also has numerous pictures from the Labour Party and its leader, some taken together with Natelashvili.
POSTV claimed that the van from which Gogiberidze was supposedly selling fruits and vegetables was parked specifically prior to media brief and was owned by another member of the Labour Party from Kakheti Region, Nugzar Paturashvili. They also showed footage allegedly showing the agricultural products being taken back to a Labour Party office by another member of the party after journalists left the scene.
POSTV anchor and founder Shalva Ramishvili is a controversial media personality, known to mix political commentary with entertainment and satire, and of using foul language in his shows. Ramishvili previously worked for Georgian Dream chair Bidzina Ivanishvili, and frequently challenges criticisms of Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, a member of the ruling party.
‘Helping to highlight a problem’
Giorgi Gugava, political secretary of the Labour Party, confirmed to OC Media that Gogiberidze was a member of the party, but claimed he was also a farmer, and that the party was helping to highlight a problem. ‘Doesn’t our party member have the right to also be a farmer and sell his crops?’, he asked.
Gugava also complained that the government recently imposed a ₾1,000 ($400) fine for selling products from cars in the street.
When asked why the party did not inform the media that Gogiberidze was member, Gugava said ‘the situation he was put into because of the government’ was relevant, not his party affiliation. Gugava did not challenge the claim that the agricultural products were transported to and from the scene by the party.
In an interview with POSTV, Gogiberidze said he ‘follows Natelashvili’s activities on Facebook’ and ‘wrote to him for a help’. Gogiberidze did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Natelashvili, a founding member of the Labour Party, received less than 3% in 2013 presidential elections and 6% in 2008. In the last two parliamentary elections, the party failed to pass the 5% threshold to enter parliament.
There have been numerous crackdowns from Tbilisi city authorities in recent years against street vendors, who sell clothes, books, fruits and vegetables and other products on Tbilisi’s streets, mostly on pavements. Both the current and previous governments claimed that vendors were a nuisance to pedestrians and cause sanitary problems in the city’s busiest streets, but many vendors say that selling on the street is the only way they can earn a living. In March–April 2017, city authorities cleared several central streets from vendors, triggering protests.
[Read more about the controversy on OC Media: Tbilisi City Hall cracks down on street vendors]
A crackdown on street vendors was followed by protests in late August in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi. One local seller, who was ultimately fined ₾50 ($20) for selling products illegally, cut open her arms in protest. The woman claimed the authorities confiscated ₾1,000 ($400) worth of products from her.