ARRESTS IN GEORGIA DISTURB TRANSFER OF POWER

By Niklas Nilsson (11/28/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Following the parliamentary elections and Bidzina Ivanishvili’s installation as Prime Minister, Georgia has undergone a series of arrests of former high government officials and members of the security establishment. While the now ruling coalition Georgian Dream (GD) promised during the election campaign that it would prosecute alleged misdeeds of the former government, the actions also carry the signs of a politically motivated campaign to weaken the former ruling party. While the case can be made that certain practices of the previous government should be investigated and prosecuted, the pattern of arrests risks damaging Georgia’s relations with international partners as well as its domestic development process.

BACKGROUND: Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary elections and the unexpected victory of the GD coalition over President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ruling UNM party was widely hailed as the beginning of a new phase in Georgian politics. Not only had the Georgian political system defied its critics by allowing for elections sufficiently free and fair to result in a parliamentary majority for the political opposition, the results also induced key members of the ruling UNM, most prominently Saakashvili himself, to display an unanticipated act of political maturity in conceding defeat and pledging to help facilitate the process of an orderly power transfer to GD. Indeed, the consolidation of Georgia’s democracy and political system, as well as its potential future as an integrated part of the Euro-Atlantic community depend on this process.

Yet, slightly over a month after the elections, the current series of investigations and arrests started with the November 7 detention of former Interior Minister, Defense Minister, and head of the Ministry of Justice’s penitentiary department Bachana Akhalaia, the Chief of the Joint Staff Giorgi Kalandadze, and Brigade Commander Zurab Shamatava on charges of abusing power, through the abuse of five soldiers under their command. Kalandadze was later released on bail and dismissed from his position as Chief of Joint Staff, and senior UNM members charge that his arrest was intended to pave the way for an associate of new Defense Minister Irakli Alasania to assume that post (see the 11/14/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst). Akhalaia is held in pretrial detention facing a growing number of charges, including abduction and torture.

On November 15, current Tbilisi vice-mayor and former deputy interior minister Shota Khizanishvili, along with the department of constitutional security head Levan Kardava and an additional ten officials of the interior ministry were arrested on charges of illegal surveillance of political opponents, including figures such as former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and Nino Burjanadze but most prominently of GD’s headquarters. The charges include abduction of Ivanishvili’s bodyguard who was allegedly coerced into claiming responsibility for unflattering video footage of GD members during the election campaign, and of damaging equipment imported by Ivanishvili’s Cartu Group.

Developments in the past week seemingly imply that upcoming prosecutions could proceed to target the very top of the UNM. The Interior Ministry announced on November 24 that it is conducting an internal investigation against the former heads of the ministry’s Departments of Constitutional Security Data Akhalaia, (brother of the aforementioned Bachana) and General Inspection Vasil Sanodze, on various charges of abuse of power including in relation to the 2006 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani. The ministry’s alleged cover up of that investigation under the aforementioned officials constitutes one of the most publicized justice scandals in Georgia during the UNM’s time in power. The fact that the case also involves the wife of then Interior Minister, later Prime Minister and current UNM general secretary Vano Merabishvili implies that Merabishvili himself risks becoming a subject of investigation.

In addition, the announcement by Justice Minster Tea Tsulukiani that a probe will be resumed into the death of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania in February 2004, the circumstances around which remain unclear, and the handling of this case by the former authorities, implies that Saakashvili himself and other members of his inner circle may be in the crosshairs of the prosecutor general’s office. In addition, the GD is exploring the possibility of prematurely altering the constitution in order to circumscribe Saakashvili’s considerable executive powers as president, before constitutional changes entering into force after the presidential elections next year transfer many of those powers to the prime minister and parliament. 

IMPLICATIONS: Some of these arrests and investigations seem unavoidable – not least that of Akhalaia, whose former position as penitentiary chief makes him ultimately responsible for the dire conditions in Georgia’s prisons as illustrated by the video footage released a week before the elections. Indeed, investigations into alleged crimes and abuse of power by the previous government could constitute a means for soothing grievances in Georgian society over the negative aspects of the UNM’s rule, clarifying responsibilities for such misconduct, and also theoretically freeing the accused of unfounded charges. It should be recalled that after assuming power, the UNM government engaged in several arrests of previous government officials, usually on corruption charges, who were for the most part released in exchange for repaying large sums they had allegedly embezzled from the state.

However, while the new government vividly insists that the investigations are conducted purely in observance of Georgian law, the apparent rush in selecting a series of high profile cases for investigation on which the highest leadership of the UNM can allegedly be indicted also signals a political motivation to the proceedings. In addition, the well known lack of independence of the Georgian judiciary, resulting in a near zero acquittal rate under the previous government, add to the questionable integrity of the pending trials.

There is hence reason to believe that the pursuit of high-profile criminal investigations against prominent UNM members is at least partly motivated by the GD’s desire to eliminate key opposition figures from the Georgian political scene. After losing the parliamentary elections, the UNM has embarked on forming a new identity as an opposition party and will potentially mount a considerable challenge to the GD in elections to come. Yet, in the Georgian political context, where personalities matter far more than party programs or ideologies, party leaders play a crucial role in maintaining the unity of any political grouping and are difficult to replace. Saakashvili has played such a role for the UNM, while Merabishvili has frequently been termed a potential successor, not least due to his relatively high popularity in Georgia as a determined proponent of reform of the country’s security structures.

By targeting Saakashvili and Merabishvili, as well as several of their confidantes, on abuses of power during their tenure, the new government seemingly hopes to either neutralize political opponents by judicial means, or alternatively maintain a negative spotlight on their time in power through prolonged and well publicized investigations.

While such investigations could arguably have certain advantages in clarifying problematic aspects of the UNM’s rule and providing justice for those victimized by abuse of power, these advantages are dwarfed by the potential damage of such selective justice to Georgia’s foreign policy objectives, as well as its agenda for domestic development. In the aftermath of the arrests conducted so far, Georgia’s international partners including NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, and key officials of the U.S. Department of State have expressed their concern over developments in Georgia and urged Georgian authorities to refrain from applying selective justice. Considering Georgia’s need for displaying a maturing and democratizing political system if the country is ever to realize its ambitions of deeper integration with the Euro-Atlantic community, Georgia can ill afford to jail prominent opposition politicians in resemblance with Ukraine. While Viktor Yanukovych was awarded a brief honeymoon in relations with the EU after his election as president, the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko resulted in a considerable backlash and the EU will likely be far less patient with Ivanishvili.

More importantly still, one of the most positive outcomes of the recent elections is the emergence of two strong political groupings in Georgian politics. Such a development could theoretically constitute the first step in the formation of a party system and a genuinely pluralistic and competitive political system. However, if the new ruling party has decided to use its newfound authority to actively weaken the opposition, it will simultaneously remove one of the most important accomplishments of Georgia’s transition, and of its own ascent to power. In fact, the UNM’s previous monopoly on power has rightly been termed one of the most important obstacles to the country’s democratization and attempts by the GD to attain a similar position would constitute a considerable step backward.

CONCLUSIONS: As many Georgia-watchers have argued following the elections, the real test of Georgia’s political maturity will be an orderly and constitutional transfer of power rather than the elections themselves. In addition, the division of power between President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Ivanishvili following the elections implies that these portal figures of Georgian politics must find ways to cooperate if such a transfer is to take place in a way perceived as legitimate on part of Georgian society as well as the country’s international partners. A failure to do so will severely damage Georgia’s foreign policy agenda as well as its democratic development and the application of selective justice will not help whatever the substance of the charges.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Niklas Nilsson is Associate Editor of the Central Asia–Caucasus Analyst, and a Research Fellow with the Central Asia–Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. He is currently a Fulbright Visiting Researcher at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.