Is there a person without whom you would not have started playing football or a person who played a decisive role in your career as a footballer?
Every stage in my career as a footballer was important in its own way. When I started playing football in Samtredia [in Western Georgia], my first coach was Mr. Vano Kurulashvili. I continued playing in the first team of Samtredia and thereafter joined the national youth team. The national team was then trained by Gaioz Darsadze who spotted my capabilities and I thus found myself in the under-16s national team. Then my father took me to the reserve team of Dinamo Tbilisi. The coach of Dinamo back then was the late Givi Nodia. That is how my career in professional football started.
What can you say about the role of the Ukrainian football manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi?
Dynamo Kyiv was a sort of springboard for my football career. It is because of Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s great efforts that I achieved such success in football. He played a significant role not only in my development as a footballer, but also as a personality. I was just 18 years old when I moved to Kyiv and the discipline which I saw in Dynamo [Kyiv] proved very useful for my future development. We Georgians are, in general, not very disciplined, but Lobanovskyi established such discipline in that team that it was impossible to think about anything else other than football.
The Georgian people pinned their hopes on your generation of footballers, but at the end of the day, that generation failed to bring about any tangible results. What was the reason for this – a lack of effort on the part of the footballers or just poor luck?
There were many gifted footballers in my generation who played in good foreign clubs, but, unfortunately, we failed to achieve success in the national team. That was perhaps because of the underdeveloped nature of the Georgian leagues. It is a huge problem when a country’s local leagues are at a low level. In such circumstances, it is very difficult to achieve success in a national team, no matter how strong your footballers are when playing abroad. Such a problem also exists today and I think that [Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs of Georgia] Mr. Levan Kipiani will take care of that.
Who is the most talented Georgian footballer you have played with?
Giorgi Kinkladze. He was so talented that he could easily have become a world soccer star. Perhaps it was because of his personal character that he failed to fully realize his capabilities.
Successful foreign footballers often help beginners by opening free football academies or by transferring money to existing schools. Why has no one done that in Georgia so far?
I had a very interesting project in this regard. I wanted to create a sports school in Tbilisi, in the land adjacent to one of Tbilisi State University’s buildings in the Saburtalo district. Unfortunately, negotiations with the Tbilisi mayor’s office ended with no result; I was not given that space for reasons unknown to me.
After that, it came to pass that I stayed mainly in Italy and was thus not able to implement such a project. But, as the familiar saying goes, better late than never. I now have a new project: I want to open two sports schools in Samtredia. These schools will be of a European standard and, what’s more, will be free of charge.
Soon after the kidnap and subsequent murder of your brother, Levan Kaladze, you went out on the pitch to play, but could not help crying. Was there a moment when you thought you would never play in the national team of Georgia?
That is a very difficult subject for me and my family. No one can heal that wound whilst we are alive.
As regards playing in the national team, I made a statement back then that I would not play for Georgia until my brother’s case had been investigated. That statement only served the aim of speeding up the investigation as much as possible. At that time, I had been newly transferred to Milan and the period was very difficult for me.
Are the events surrounding the abduction of your brother fully clear for you? Do you know everything about this case?
I strongly doubt that only the four criminals currently serving their sentences were involved in this case. I think there were other participants as well: those who supervised those criminals. I do not think that such a large-scale crime was committed by four people alone. The investigation will be reopened in the future and we will learn about these details after that.
Many criticize the Football Federation of Georgia. The Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs of Georgia called on the President of the Federation, Zviad Sichinava, to look into his conscience and resign, but to date Sichinava remains in his position. How do you evaluate the activity of the Federation and do you think that early elections should be held?
We all remember perfectly well what was going on in the Football Federation. The presidents of the Football Federation were replaced alongside the change in political power, it was a process directly linked to politics. Mr. Sichinava’s appointment was also political. That is fact, not fiction and everyone is well aware of that. Even now, I am categorically against both the involvement of the state and the calling of early elections. The existing leadership must continue serving its term until it expires, no matter how painful and difficult this may be.
You are a twice winner of the Champions League as a member of AC Milan, one of the world’s best teams, and holder of many prestigious awards. You have gained a huge amount of experience in football. Do you not think that it would benefit the country more if you were to use your knowledge and experience in the area of football and sports, rather than in politics?
As regards my activity in sports, I won everything and had a successful career. As a sportsman, a footballer, I exhausted my capabilities. I said from the very beginning that the career of a coach was not for me – that also requires talent, doesn’t it? I never saw myself in that capacity.
As for my political activity, I will refrain from evaluating it because I do not like to talk about myself. After some time the Georgian people will evaluate whether or not the step I took was correct – I mean the decision to retire from sports and to stand next to the Georgian people.
You were the captain of the national team of Georgia. Do you think you retired from the national team at the right time?
Yes, I left the national team at the very right time [in December 2011]. I saw and sensed the situation existing in the team and I believe I acted correctly. I gave way to younger footballers.
How did you feel when you scored two own goals within the space of 11 minutes in the September 2009 World Cup qualifying match against Italy?That is a very difficult topic for me. I often say that that was the tragedy of my sporting career. Even now, it is very difficult for me to recall all that. I was very distressed and nervous and even apologized to the Georgian football fans for that. That happened accidentally, it was something that might happen to only one person in a million. But that’s life, what can I do? Life continues and the Georgian fans have forgiven me.
Are you hurt that your farewell match did not take place? Do you think you were refused a venue by the authorities because you wanted to hold that match just before the October parliamentary elections, which would smack of electioneering? Do you intend to organize it in future?
It would be wrong to say that that hurt my feelings. I was prepared for that, I knew that it would happen. Even if I had not planned it before the elections, I am sure that [President Mikheil] Saakashvili’s government would still not have allowed me to hold a farewell match.
I want to organize this match in the spring. I will bring my friends here, those whom I played with, with whom I experienced victory and defeat and with whom I share lots of memories… I think Georgian football fans will witness a very interesting show. By the way, people often ask me about this on social networks and I know that expectation towards this match is high.
Do you like the current Georgian national team? How would you evaluate the performance of its coach Temur Ketsbaia?
Performance in sport and football is, in general, evaluated by results. There are many young footballers in the team today who each have the capability to play good football. I wholeheartedly wish them success.
Who among the young Georgian footballers has the potential to become a top-class player?
[Levan] Mchedlidze can play good football. He has skills, both physical and technical. [Davit] Targamadze also has such a chance, [Levan] Kenia is a good footballer as well, although he has suffered injuries and I cannot tell whether he will manage to recover his former position after being out for three years. I would recommend that [Jano] Ananidze change his [Spartak Moscow] club because it ruins a footballer when he is not able to play regularly, especially at such a young age. Jano is a very promising footballer and he should move to such a club where he will be allowed to play regularly. That would contribute to his development.
Can you recall the happiest day and the worst day of your football career?
I had lots of happy days in my career but winning the Champions League is something extraordinary. I did that twice. I was also very happy when, playing for the Georgian national team, we defeated Croatia in Tbilisi [in 2011]. All of Georgia celebrated that victory gained in the last minutes of the match. That is an unforgettable memory. The worst one was that match against Italy that we discussed earlier.
When you played for Dynamo Kyiv, Bayern Munich wanted to lure you. Did you have other offers from large clubs?
Yes, very many offers. You are right, when I played for Dynamo Kyiv, Bayern Munich contacted us. I even arrived in Munich to discuss terms of a contract, but within two weeks of returning to Kyiv I got an offer from AC Milan. The Milanese paid a substantial amount to Dynamo [Kyiv] and I signed a five-year contract with the Italians.
Over the period when I played in Milan I received various offers, including from Bayern. I had almost finalized negotiations with Chelsea when it was decided that I would stay in Milan. That was in 2006-2007. There were serious talks about moving to Liverpool and Barcelona, but I only had negotiations with those teams I named earlier.
What was your best match?
I performed in many top-level matches in Milan and am very proud of that. For example, the final match in the Champions League against Juventus, which we won. I played a number of good matches against Inter…
I can recall your excellent match against Real Madrid, when you kept tabs on Luis Figo…
Yes, I remember that match. I was a left back and Figo was on my wing. I do not want to look like I am bragging, but I never allowed him to hit his stride so in the second half of the match he was moved to the opposite wing. I agree with you, that was one of best matches of my career.
You were once a supporter of the United National Movement. Why did you change your political affiliation?
Of course, I, like 90 percent of the country’s population, supported Mikheil Saakashvili. You must remember what huge support they enjoyed when they came to power in 2003. We all thought that a political team of young people had come to power who would undertake serious reforms. In fact, serious reforms were indeed implemented in the beginning.
I changed my opinion because of those actions which the UNM took, especially in the past few years; because of the pressure they exerted on people; and because of the situation in which the population of our country lived.
Did not you notice such facts when you supported them?
I always tried to say what was being done well in the country and, at the same time, I also said what I disliked – what was bad and could be improved. For example, let’s take the murder of [Sandro] Girgvliani, I did not refrain from mentioning that to the President on a live talk show.
I am not among those people that depended on the United National Movement in this or that way; who, no matter whether good or bad things were being done, simply nodded their heads in agreement. I think a large proportion of the blame for what we are now witnessing must be shared by this unthinking entourage.
When did you finally decide to enter politics and what was the main reason behind that decision?
The reason was the situation that emerged over the past few years in the country. Our population experienced great pain and pressure. I made an official statement about my decision [to enter politics] in May , but started thinking seriously about that after [current Prime Minister] Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili entered politics [in October 2011].
I will be frank and say that before Mr. Bidzina [Ivanishvili] entered politics I had received other offers from various political forces, but I always turned those down. I was engaged in sport and did not trust those political forces which our population considered opposition forces. The entry of Ivanishvili into politics stirred in me, as among many citizens of our country, hopes about success. The great success the Georgian people have achieved should be credited to this person.
You have said that you received offers from various political parties. How happy are you with your current team? Are there people among them who you disagree with?
In general, there is sometimes disagreement inside the [Georgian Dream] coalition and I think that is normal because correct opinions are born out of arguments. As regards the coalition, it is indeed united. Our opponents often suggest there is confusion or disagreement in the coalition. That does not reflect the reality. True, we argue when taking decisions – everyone cannot have similar opinions, can they? There are various political parties in the coalition.
Retired Georgian international footballer Giorgi Demetradze is your closest friend. He was arrested in 2010, found guilty of extortion and involvement in illegal sports betting and was sentenced to six years imprisonment. Did that also nudge you towards politics? What is your take on Demetradze’s case – was he innocent? Was he punished too severely?
Of course, Giorgi’s illegal detention prompted my engagement [in politics] – alongside the general situation in the country. There are no families left in the country who have not suffered from Saakashvili’s regime – either a brother, a cousin or a neighbor was arrested. In terms of prison inmates per capita, we top the list of European countries and rank seventh in the world. All these things, not just one fact, led to my involvement in politics.Demetradze is absolutely innocent. I think you remember what he was punished for – for being a person connected to thieves-in-laws and committed to their traditions. Who was the thief-in-law? Who was he in contact with? Everything was unsubstantiated. The amount [of money] which the police took from Demetradze did not belong to him. When arresting him, banknotes were rubbed against his fingers in order to secure fingerprints as evidence. As regards the [secret recordings of his] telephone conversations [used as evidence in Demetradze’s case], I was unable to figure out how Demetradze was at all linked [to the thieves-in-law]. There are lots of outstanding questions regarding this case. Today I believe that Giorgi Demetradze’s arrest was unfounded and that he is innocent. His arrest was the whim of one person, Mikheil Saakashvili. During the local elections [held in May 2010], Giorgi Demetradze was asked to support the United National Movement, but he refused and Saakashvili felt offended.
So you think that that was the reason for his arrest?
That was one of the factors and of course, they [the UNM] were aware of his friendship with me and my attitude [towards the UNM].
Is there any politician in the former government whom you like and think supports the development of the country?
I think these people will continue the demagogy they have been engaged in over recent years; even today their rhetoric has not changed. What did the UNM, in general, rely on? On PR, both inside and outside the country – which they did successfully, and on fear, which the state built upon by means of the police. The police became a body tailored to one person, one team; the same is true for the courts, the constitution, the prosecutor’s office…
I would really find it difficult to single out a politician with common sense.
Before the elections the Georgian Dream and its supporters maintained that the former government had sold the Enguri hydropower plant to Russia. In early November you said that this was not true. Did you not have this information before the elections?
The evidence was a confidential document. There was much talk as if the Enguri HPP had been sold. I do not remember leaders of the Georgian Dream making such a statement, but this issue was discussed in general. We did not have the information, because it was not available to us. Today, I can boldly declare that the Enguri HPP has not been sold, although negotiations were under way. There is a memorandum, though it was not signed, about the transfer of this HPP into the management of [the Russian public energy company] Inter RAO.
It was clear that in the event of winning the elections you would take a high political position. Did this happen? Are you happy about being the minister of a sphere in which you are absolutely inexperienced?
I have not engaged in politics for the sake of an official position. As regards my current position, that was the decision of the prime minister and his team. We are in power and we must deliver on all those promises we made in the run up to the elections. On behalf of the current government, I pledge that we will necessarily make good on them. I will repeat that I have no qualms about my position.
Ivanishvili has repeatedly declared that he will step down from his position of prime minister in a year and a half. Who would you like to see take his place? Do you have such an ambition – especially considering that earlier you publicly declared your desire to become president?
Let’s start with the desire [to become president]; that is not true and is misinterpreted by journalists. You can seek that information in the archives – I have not said I want to be the president. That was Saakashvili’s statement. He said that he envied me because he would never be able to become a good footballer, whereas I can become a politician, a president. I do not have the ambition of presidency; nor did I have the ambition to have the position I hold today.
As regards the exit of the prime minister in a year and a half, I do not think that he will leave because he has much work to do. Our team came to power owing to the very fact that our leader is Bidzina Ivanishvili. The Georgian people awarded him their trust and I am sure he will stay in politics. However, it is up to him to decide whether to stay or not.
What was your relationship with [former prime minister turned opposition leader] Zurab Noghaideli and why did you sever this relationship?
He was the president of my company. After he decided to engage in politics, we agreed that he would leave this post.
I still maintain normal relations with Mr. Zurab – not a business relationship or partnership, but an ordinary, human relationship.
Who is a model politician for you?
A model politician for me is our Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. I do not want to be misunderstood – I believe that we do not have such a perfect politician in Georgia. If anything, it is only a year now that he has been in politics, but with his actions, restraint and strategy he has proved that he is a politician of such magnitude.
Can you single out any concrete action taken by Bidzina Ivanishvili as a politician that you like the most?
The strategy before the elections. Everything must be credited to him. You would probably agree with me that one could have hardly imagined that the [parliamentary] elections could have passed so painlessly, without any problems. True, we were sure that we would win, but some misunderstandings might have arisen. This person managed to arrange everything so that any problem was avoided.
Did you expect victory in the election?
Frankly speaking, we did expect victory because of the huge energy that had accumulated in society. That was a result of the anger that had been built up during the years that Saakashvili and his regime ruled the Georgian people. We had great hopes of victory, but still feared that Saakashvili and his government would manage to rig the elections; not with falsification on the day of elections, but in the processes that were going on throughout the months beforehand. This became manifested in the treatment of the supporters of the Georgian Dream: freezing accounts, beatings, arrests and intimidation. At the end of the day, the percentage of the votes they received is in fact a result of such interference.
Shortly after your appointment, you said that the main thing now is to get through winter without problems. What did you mean by that?The risk of sabotage was great. You know that we had very little time to make changes and reorganizations. I knew, in general, that we have difficulties with electricity in winter. This will also be a problem in the future. We are doing everything to tackle that and become energy independent. This is a very important issue for us, for our government.
We consume more electricity in winter. We do not have sufficient local resources and purchase electricity from Russia and Azerbaijan [in winter]. In the spring and summer we have excess electricity. We wanted to get through winter painlessly.
What is the state of the Georgian energy sector today? Has it developed over the past eight years? What needs to be improved during your tenure as minister?
There have been welcome changes. We remember blackouts in the country, but they depended on the approaches taken in those times. The progress is obvious. I am sure we must do more to use our existing resources rationally in future. We must not blindly entrust projects important for our country to investors.
By the way, many such projects have been given to investors without specifying either a timeframe for their commencement and completion or the responsibilities to be imposed on investors in case of failure. Yet in other projects everything is crystal-clear, having been outlined in detail. That shows that some investors were treated in a friendly manner, while no contact had been established with others.
We have signed a document on future cooperation with USAID in order to improve the market, legislation and to establish rules for trading electricity. This is very important for us in order to conduct proper trade with Turkey and other countries in the region. USAID has assisted Georgia and the development of its energy sector for 20 years now.
Conflicting statements were made about the construction of new hydropower plants. What precisely do you intend to do, how many HPPs will be built?
Saakashvili’s claims that 15 new HPPs were being built proved to be a lie. In reality, the construction of three or four HPPs is underway; the others are not being constructed.
Recent statements from Saakashvili concerning [the new government’s refusal to build] the Khobi-1 and Khobi-2 HPPs are also patent lies. I want to tell you that this company will receive a construction permit, perhaps in March, and will then commence construction.
We plan to build, together with Turkish partners, a new thermal power plant in Gardabani with an installed capacity of 150 megawatts. We also plan to explore the possibility of constructing a coal-fired power plant in Tkibuli. We have vast resources of coal. We also want to implement a pilot project to use wind energy to see how suitable and affordable that electricity will be for our population. There are places in the Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti regions suitable for such plants. Everything depends on our finances and the size of electricity tariffs.
If new energy capacities are not created in a timely fashion, will our energy independence decline?
We have problems with energy independence. We do not have enough resources to go through winter without imports, which is a problem in itself. Of course, developing new capacities is very important, but it takes between four and five years to construct a hydropower plant. The projects already under construction will provide additional capacities, but until their completion we will need to import electricity in winter.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili recently released Defense Minister Irakli Alasania from his role of deputy prime minster, explaining this decision by the fact the position was an undesirable additional load for someone who heads a very important ministry. You also perform the function of deputy prime minister. Is it not an additional load for you? Or is it that the energy sector is less important than the field of defense and you can effectively combine these two posts?
When comparing the defense and energy ministries, I think the difference is huge. The defense ministry is one of the strongest and largest ministries in the country.
Lots of work needs to be done in the Georgian army. There were very serious problems and I think that Irakli [Alasania] will now have more time to enhance his ministry. We must speed up our integration into NATO, which falls within the interests of our country and the new government.
I believe that Irakli Alasania has far more work to do in his ministry than I have in mine. I am more flexible to handle the position of deputy prime minister.