Georgian government ups the pressure on Saakashvili

By bne IntelliNews July 2, 2013

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

The campaign of Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian government against its predecessor is provoking international concern. However, its efforts are receiving wide support at home.

A new round of arrests and allegations against members of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) has spurred worries in the West. Prime Minister Ivanishvili's government is now seeing accusations in some quarters that it is following a petty agenda, when it should be working on improving relations with the president with which it shares power; at least until presidential elections in October.

However, while the latest arrests and charges - which include details of a massive cover-up over the 2006 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani - have raised protest from some foreign allies, the government's push to investigate high level corruption and abuse of power during Saakashvili's years in office has - so far - received wide support at home.

To date, two former ministers are headed for trial, the influential Tbilisi mayor has been charged with embezzlement, and over a dozen former bureaucrats from the prison system, the police ministry, and other government bodies have been arrested. Yet there have been few convictions, suggesting that the government is allowing the justice system to act independently.

Poland, Nato, and the European People's Party, however, are amongst those that view the arrests as possible persecution. They have all joined the chorus of concern over the arrests of formally high-ranking officials, including Vano Merabishvili, a former prime minister and Saakashvili ally, who was credited with reforming the police and battling low level corruption.

Human rights groups and legal watchdogs - including the Public Defender's Office - have also questioned the legality of some arrests. The detention of 23 UNM members from the Tbilisi City Council and City Hall on June 27 by the financial police - reportedly in connection with an embezzlement investigation - is the latest example to have stirred such concern. On June 27, the financial police reportedly descended to handcuff the accused, but failed to charge them. With the drama clashing with a visit to Tbilisi by Nato General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen, they were initially released. However, four - including Deputy Mayor Davit Alavidze - were rearrested several hours later, following Rasmussen's departure.

The arrested officials have been charged with embezzling GEL48.9m (€22.6m) of public money. While there is a plethora of research by groups like Transparency International and the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information that indicates Tbilisi City Hall blatantly misused public funds under the UNM's watch, the evidence released to support the latest arrests has, so far, been flimsy.

Ivanishvili, who has come under intense pressure to scrap the arrests, has staunchly disavowed any political context. In a speech on June 28, he said detaining members of the UNM in connection to an embezzlement scandal was not "favorable" for the Georgian Dream ruling coalition but was forced upon it. "Events developed as law enforcement agencies deemed it necessary, and not as I or the political leadership did," the PM said.

"The law enforcement agencies are free from political interference and they do their job," he insisted, adding that he "understands" that some hold concerns over the action. "If they have questions about procedural violations during arrest or interrogation, let them put forth examples, let them file a complaint in court and the court will decide," he said.

That bullish stance is encouraged by support amongst the domestic audience. Despite some criticism inside Georgia that claims the arrests and charges have been bad timed, poorly executed, and based on limited evidence, the new government's efforts to hold the UNM accountable for nine years of opaque spending, alleged human rights violations, and Girgvliani's murder, appear to enjoy wide approval. A poll of Georgian voters by the International Republican Institute released in May found that just 12% of the 1,500 people questioned were against the arrests of former officials, while 84% want to see them continue.

In addition, to Ivanishvili's credit, the new government has taken steps to de-politicalize the criminal justice system. On June 27, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani made good on an election promise to uncouple the ministry and the prosecutor's office. Under the former government, the minister of justice controlled the general prosecutor and held the power to prosecute certain crimes.

The charges against Merabshvili now include allegations that he masterminded a large-scale government cover up hiding the involvement of the police, and even his own wife, in events surrounding the brutal murder of 26 year-old banker Sandro Girgvliani in 2006. The investigation could even eventually lead to Saakashvili's arrest, Ivanishvili said on June 24.

Charging the president, who enjoys support abroad even if his popularity at home is waning, could call into question Georgia's Rose Revolution legacy as a reform powerhouse. It would also put at risk Saakashvili's carefully built position as the former Soviet leader who used democracy, electricity, and investment to save a failing state. However, even if the investigations do not lead to his arrest, the scores of allegations against his allies and party already threaten to undermine any chance the weakened UNM has in the October presidential election.

At least one lawmaker has announced plans to start a motion to impeach the president, who has four months left in his last term in office. In addition, a newly released collection of prison abuse videos has forced UNM members of parliament to call for a bi-partisan investigation into any possible role by the former government in the torture. That appears to ensure that Ivanishvili's administration will keep digging into the UNM's Rose Revolution legacy for many months to come.

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