Putin’s Georgian Adversary

Kakha Bendukidze

I was writing a long SMS to a man who was once a powerful political figure in Georgia. He was a progressive reformer and fighter of corruption and subsequently has become a major source of political knowledge here and abroad. I was expecting a reply packed with just enough wisdom to be used for a good article quote, when suddenly I received a one short note: “What a Twit.”

Kakha Bendukidze did not need to apologize or explain himself for the words he used to describe stupidity or unreasonable behavior of the people around him. His message was clear, and had no hidden meanings. I simply laughed and continued my article about Georgia’s struggling economy, which is desperately missing the double digit growth it experienced in 2007 when Bendukidze was in charge.

As a professional journalist, poisoned with constant flow of news from my Blackberry, somehow I missed the announcement of Kakha Bendukidze’s tragic departure. When I woke up to take my dog for a walk and kids to school, he had already died in London. ‘Why did you not wake me up? Was my first complaining post online,, and to all of my friends who knew this before I did.

Bendukidze came back to Georgia following the team of the bloodless Rose Revolution changes in 2004. He was a large enough figure, including his actual size to overshadow everything around him, and began engineering and economic reforms in the post-Soviet republic which was unheard of.

Mikheil Saakashvili, the man who spearheaded the fight against the Soviet style of politics under Eduard Shevardnadze, would have not succeeded without Bendukidze’s masterful changes. His reforms were so successful that everyone despised him, and now he is dead. Everyone is sad.

Bendukidze believed that the Soviets could have called something as obscure as a chicken house a strategic location. He was in favor of selling it all, in order to diminish the role of the central government in businesses, and, basically, to run as small a government as possible.

Funeral for Bendukidze.
Funeral for Bendukidze.

“Remember his words? Everything is for sale but your dignity,” Roman Gotsiridze, Georgia’s former National Bank chief said in an interview in Tbilisi, soon after the death was announced.

Or there were experts who simply said about him that Bendukidze wanted to blame everything on the global crisis, when Georgia’s economy sunk. Georgia’s economy was not and is not closely tied to the global economy; they argued that everything was his fault.

We met the first time when I returned to Georgia, in 2006. Legends about his wit and quick come backs, especially at reporters, were going around. There were many You Tube videos and articles showing some reporters where to go. I was fully prepared. I sat in front of him and switched on my voice recorder and, asked my question and said: Please start, I am all ears.”

“What? You are not going to argue with me on this?” he giggled.

We ended talking about many other things, including my traveling life before settling in Georgia. He loved the part when I said that as a Georgian, married to a Brit, I lived in Taiwan and taught little Chinese kids English. “C’mon, it’s the greatest anecdote I ever heard,” Bendukidze said.

Bendukidze never ignored a single email, SMS or Facebook post from reporters, regardless of the question. Those who posed groundless queries were ruthlessly challenged by him, in everything from math and logic, to geography and common knowledge.

Out of my many interviews and meetings with Bendukidze, I remember when he was no longer in government. He sat giggling, eating watermelon, sipping hot chocolate, with his eyes closed when he talked. I recall his spot-on prognosis right after, when the economy was still recovering from about $1 billion in damage from the five-day war with Russia, over the separatist region of South Ossetia. Georgia won pledges of $4.55 billion in international aid in the wake of the conflict, including a two-year $1 billion offer by the US.

“Look, our economy will contract, figures say it all. $1 billion investment brings seven percent growth, simple as that. We need $2 billon.” Still, he praised the government for preventing the economy from “deteriorating” as a result of the war and the global crisis in 2008.

Bendukidze became government chief of staff after stepping down in 2008 from the post of Economic Development Ministry. He was a former general director of OMZ Gruppa Uralmash-Izhora, Russia’s biggest producer of heavy machinery. He sold his OMZ stake in 2005.

Unloading the casket
Unloading the casket.

No one in Georgia, even Bendukidze himself would have foreseen what laid ahead of him, when he suddenly decided to invest in the two educational projects he founded: the Free University of Tbilisi and the Agricultural University of Georgia. Investing in state-of- -art progressive education should have been the turnaround point for those who hated him, but instead, the fight intensified. Bendukidze became a target. A criminal case was launched against him, accusing Bendukidze of illegal privatization and even underwent a multi-hour questioning session in June. He left shortly thereafter, and never returned.

It’s not that Bendukidze was the only famous Russian-background analyst who spoke about the tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, but it was Bendukidze’s words , which seriously affected Ivanishvili. Well, it was certainly in my case, when in September last year, Ivanishvili, who defeated Saakashvili’s government in parliamentary presidential and local elections, confronted me on live TV about Bendukidze’s statement, “He will become like a godfather” referring to Ivanishvili, used in one of our articles in Bloomberg.

Bendukidze avoided speaking about Ivanishvili ever since, though he remained a harsh critic of the current government’s lack of possibilities, and overestimating the Russian market factor. He was a staunch supporter of major reforms, and soon his ideas became contagious when he was invited to join the Advisory Board for National Reforms Council (NRC), President Poroshenko’s initiative to coordinate reforms in Ukraine. Bendukidze was soon lined up to become the country’s Economy Minister according to his allies. He deeply believed that Ukraine was the most important country in the world, because the future of new global order was decided there.

That is where our last meeting was held, in Kiev, on September 16. Being away from his homeland and from the educational facilities which he created, he suffered. My goal was to write about Ukraine but we also talked about Georgian politics and economy.

“Please do not publish what I said about Ivanishvili. Yes, I think he is the problem, but they will kill me for saying that. Delete that recording now.” Bendukidze laughed during our interview. We both laughed.

“Kakha hated norms and boundaries, he was the breath of fresh air,” Alexander Rondeli, who heads the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi said.“It is vital for his educational facilities to continue functioning, because they are the strategic locations,and invaluable to fight clichés, which he hated so much.”

Vato Lejhava, chancellor of the Free University of Tbilisi, which Bendukidze founded in 2007, said that there are no risks or threats to stop up to 3500 students from continuing to study here, but they can’t be prevented. The case is still ongoing.

Photographs courtesy of George Bazaev. All rights reserved.


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