The storm after the calm in Georgia

By bne IntelliNews November 12, 2012

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

The gloves are off in Tbilisi as the new ruling power takes aim at President Mikheil Saakashvili's allies.

Bacho Akhalaia, a former defense minister and close ally of Saakashvili, was charged on November 8 with exceeding the powers of his office and illegally detaining soldiers, a move that marked the end of the political honeymoon between the ruling Georgian Dream coalition and Saakashvili's United National Movement party.

Akhalaia's arrest, as well as the arrest of a top-ranking general and plans to open criminal investigations into several Saakashvili-era scandals, indicates the five-week truce between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's coalition and the outgoing government is finally over.

Despite fears that Saakashvili and the UNM would create obstacles and play politics off post-election tensions, the transition of power following Ivanishvili's surprise win at the October 1 parliamentary election had been peaceful and largely productive. That calm ended, however, once the new government formally took power, and as the new ministers formed staffs and set out priorities, tensions between the two political groups has grown. Over the past week, the once powerful UNM has been subjected to the full force of defeat as its once-powerful members face arrest and criminal investigations.

Akhalaia was arrested on November 8 along with the chief of staff of the Georgian Armed Forces, Giorgi Kalandadze, and the commander of 4th infantry brigade, Zurab Shamatava. The UNM, which is currently boycotting the parliament, has slammed the arrests as "political retribution." But the Georgian Dream coalition maintains the arrests are part and parcel of their pledge to bring justice to the country. "If illegal acts have been committed - and I think they have been - law enforcement agencies will continue restoring justice in the country," Ivanishvili was quoted as saying on the news site Civil.ge. "I will do my best to ensure that the law, not some political party or force, reigns supreme in this country."

While UNM officials have called Akhalaia's arrest alarming, it comes as little surprise.

Akhalaia left Georgia in the wake of the prison scandal and the UNM's defeat in the October election, along with the former justice minister Zurab Adeishvili and defense minister Dimitri Shashkin. But, unlike his colleagues, Akhalaia returned on November 5, telling journalists the allegations against him were "absurd" and he was ready to answer any questions related to his time in the government.

A former defense minister - he also served as minister of internal affairs, the country's policing organ, and the minister of the penitentiaries - Akhalaia has been implicated in several human rights scandals, starting from the deadly 2006 prison rights. In September, he stepped down as interior minister after evidence of systematic abuse in the prisons became public and the Georgian Dream coalition - then the opposition - demanded his arrest.

In addition, detaining Alakhaia has secured valuable political points for the ruling party ruling party during the crucial period when it is striving to turn pre-election promises into reality. Public expectations are high for Ivanishvili and his team, who came to power on an anti-Saakashvili platform full of pledges to bring former officials to task for alleged misdeeds.

Over the past five weeks, voters have sought to push the new government's agenda forward: strikes started across the country and vulnerable groups like the homeless and families displaced by the war forcibly took possession of empty buildings in the capital.

The arrests, coupled with plans to slash the budget of state agencies still under Saakashvili's control, including the presidential residence and the National Security Council, have played well with the public. Plans to audit the public television station, headed by a UNM ally, were announced on November 7; according to the finance ministry, the television station owes the state GEL 3.8m (€1.8m).

Saakashvili commented on the new government's actions via video address on November 7, saying they were a source of "concern" and that "now, more than ever" Georgia need the rule of law.

There is no sign, however, that the arrests will stop soon. ""We have to detain everyone who has to be detained and we'll consider all the factors in this process..." newly appoint Minister of Interior Affairs Irakli Gharibashvili told journalists on November 8.

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