The opposition appears to have lost their majority on the Batumi City Council after the death of a councillor, allegedly following pressure from the government.
Nugzar Putkaradze died last Thursday in what his sister, who also sits on the city council, has said was a diabetic attack. The opposition United National Movement (UNM) have claimed that his blood sugar levels skyrocketed leading to his death after repeated attempts by people connected to the ruling party to make him defect.
Putkaradze was a newly elected majoritarian member of the city assembly of the Black Sea coastal city of Batumi, the capital of Georgia’s Autonomous Republic of Adjara.
His death means opposition parties now hold 17 of the 35 seats on the city council, potentially changing the balance of power in favour of the ruling party. A by-election will be held to replace him.
During a press conference on Wednesday, UNM members in Batumi played audio recordings of conversations allegedly between the late Putkaradze and representatives of Georgian Dream in which they appear to attempt to bribe and pressure Putkaradze into defecting.
A ‘Neutral’ councillor is needed
According to the UNM, one of Putkaradze’s two interlocutors in the recordings was Vazha Tabagidze, who they said was the uncle of the Mayor of Khelvachauri, Zaza Diasamidze. In the recordings, the man identified by the UNM as Vazha Tabagidze is heard offering an ‘80% cut’ to Putkaradze. The UNM claimed the offer was $80,000.
‘A neutral [councillor] is needed… Neutral means neither here nor there’, he says.
The UNM claimed Tabagidze was acting on instructions from Davit Rizhvadze, whose son, Tornike Rizhvade, is the chair of the Government of Adjara. Until at least this year, Davit Rizhvadze was also an employee of the local Interior Ministry.
‘They met with Nugzar Putkaradze several times, which became unbearable. Mr Putkaradze recorded these by himself’, the local head of the UNM, Giorgi Kirtadze, alleged on 24 November.
The UNM has demanded a criminal investigation into the content of the recordings.
They have also demanded the resignation of the head of Adjara, Tornike Rizhvadze, his father, Davit Rizhvadze, and the Mayor of Khelvachauri, Zaza Diasamidze.
Tornike Rizhvadze was quick to comment on the allegation, hinting that he had not had the chance to listen to the audio recordings. He said he would ‘demand an apology’ if it turned out that members of his family were not actually in the recordings.
Opposition chair now unlikely
Batumi was among 20 municipalities and cities in which the ruling party was deprived of council majorities in October’s local elections.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgian opposition groups refuse to concede in municipal runoffs]
While narrowly defeating the opposition mayoral candidate in Batumi, Georgian Dream faced the prospect of a hostile city council controlled by various opposition groups.
During the elections, opposition parties won 19 seats on the city council, to Georgian Dream’s 16. The UNM won 15 seats, former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s For Georgia Party won three seats, and Lelo won one seat.
However, shortly after the vote, councillor-elect Irakli Tavdgiridze left For Georgia after what the party said was pressure from Georgian Dream.
The UNM held a similar press conference on 5 November claiming that their members were under the pressure from father-son Rizhvadze.
Opposition groups had hoped to agree on a common candidate to chair the council, which would need 17 votes.
In order to do so, the opposition would now need to win the upcoming byelection for Putkaradze’s vacant seat, a race that will be hotly contested.