TBILISI, DFWatch – From next year, Georgian theatres will refuse to accept help from billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, culture minister Nika Rurua said on December 23. Artists are saying the government forced theatre directors to make this decision. The directors have not commented.

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili has been supporting the development of Georgian culture for years. The support has been given both as individual assistance, but also to the theatres. For the last years these donations have totaled more than a million lari.

After Ivanishvili declared that he would go into politics, the government has been portraying his philanthropy as self-interest and claiming that his actions are dictated by Russian policy.

Meanwhile, the government decided to tighten the rules about party financing. A bill is under review in parliament which will change the law on Political Unions of Citizens. As the bill now stands, legal persons will not only be prohibited from financing political parties, but also financing a person or organization directly or indirectly connected to politics.

The strongest criticism of this proposal has come from lawyers, who say it contains too much room for interpretation: the term ‘indirectly connected’, when combined with the restriction, raises the possibility that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will get into trouble because of a perceived connection to party politics. Even theatres might be targeted.

The government says openly that this decision is connected with Ivanishvili’s wish to enter politics. Since his citizenship was revoked right after he declared his intentions, it is illegal for him as a non-Georgian citizen to finance political parties – directly. But under current legislation he still can finance parties indirectly through one of his businesses.

Because of these changes, NGOs and the other kinds of unions will have the problems receiving financing.

After protests from NGOs, the government explained that these restrictions won’t apply to the cultural sphere.

But artists and some theatre directors say that the Culture Minister forces theatre directors to reject Ivanishvili’s financing.

“The Culture Ministry really suggested to refuse Ivanishvili’s financing, but as of yesterday, a decision was not yet made,” says Nineli Chankvetadze, actress at Mikheil Tumanishvili theatre.

“The deputy Culture Minister really spoke to the chair of our theatre Zura Getsadze and suggested: ‘We will increase your financing from January, but you will have to not sign the agreement with Ivanishvili anymore’. I cannot tell you that Getsadze greeted this suggestion with joy. As of yesterday, a decision was not made,” Chankvetadze added.

Theatre director Keti Dolidze has made a similar statement.

But the Minister stated that it was the theatre chairs themselves who made the decision to reject Ivanisvhili’s donations.

“In order to not be involved in politics and maintain their artistic independence the theatre chairs decided to refuse Mr. Ivanishvili’s financing. Traditionally, they have written a letter to [Ivanishvili’s] fund at the beginning of the year, which then allocated a specific amount of money based on this request. Most of the theaters won’t send such an appeal this year. This is their decision and no one forced them,” Rurua stated, and added that ‘if Ivanishvili’s financing to the theatres is terminated, the government will continue to donate as it kept doing before.’

“The government helps them and of course will continue doing that. The Ivanishvili factor is very small here. The major contributor to all theatre troupes and artistic projects has always been the state. Ivanishvili’s share of charity is a little bit over-appreciated. Of course if a person does it voluntarily it is welcomed, but when the usurer requires a report on the debt of the whole country at least for 2-3 years, it is no longer a charity,” Rurua claimed.

Nineli Chankvetadze says that the average actor has a salary of 300 lari, nearly 180 US dollars. Ivanishvili’s donation for each actor is 250-2000 lari, which several times exceed the whole financing of the theatre.

That’s why some artists and directors accuse the government of spreading the wrong information.

Nineli Chankvetadze says that it’s the Minister’s responsibility to approve the budget and increasing the salaries and not giving donations.

“What do you mean the minister will help? He will give money from his pocket? No one needs this. The minister’s obligation is to increase the budget and to properly compensate people’s work. Officials who give themselves the right to live like billionaires should create appropriate living conditions to people and it’s nobody’s business from who I will receive a donation after work,” she added.

Theatre chairs have not commented yet.