COVID-19 and Trump’s indifference helped human rights abusers in 2020
Belarusian government sees $2bn of withdrawals, issues $580mn worth of bonds in 2020
Lukashenko: I am no enemy of the people
Storming parliaments: New Europe's greatest hits
One of Russia’s biggest wood product companies, Segezha could be Sistema’s next IPO
The volume of the Russian National Wealth Fund tops $183.93bn as gold overtakes dollar asset for first time
EU to begin certifying Russian Sputnik V vaccine for use in Europe
New Ukrainian VC firm QPDigital aims to invest up to $100 million in digital startups
EBRD investments reach record €11bn in pandemic-struck 2020
FPRI BMB Ukraine: Most Ukrainians are optimistic about 2021 – poll
OUTLOOK 2021 Lithuania
EBRD says loan to Estonia’s controversial Porto Franco project was never disbursed
Estonian premier quits after Tallinn development scandal
Top Centre Party official suspected of corruption in Tallinn real estate scandal
Czech Pirates and Mayors approve final coalition agreement for 2021 elections
OUTLOOK 2021 Czechia
BRICKS & MORTAR: Rosier future beckons for CEE retailers after year of change and disruption
Romanian tech entrepreneurs expand into banking sector
OUTLOOK 2021 Hungary
Hungarian government remains silent after Capitol riots
World Bank expects modest recovery for Europe and Central Asia in 2021
FDI inflows to CEE down 58% in 1H20 but rebound expected
OUTLOOK 2021 Slovakia
Slovakia to invest €1.2bn in digitisation
BALKAN BLOG: The controversial recipe for building up Albania
Heavy flooding causes chaos in parts of Southeast Europe
Vodafone Albania plans €100mn infrastructure investments after AbCom merger
OUTLOOK 2021 Albania
Kyiv accuses Bosnian President Dodik of lying about icon gifted to Russian foreign minister
Bosnia’s real GDP contracts 6.3% y/y in 3Q20
Sofia-based LAUNCHub Ventures holds first close of new fund on €44mn
ING THINK: Growth in the Balkans: from zero to hero again?
OUTLOOK 2020 Bulgaria
Labour demand down 28% y/y in Croatia in 2020
Zagreb Stock Exchange's Crobex10 index at highest level since March 5
OUTLOOK 2021 Kosovo
Arrera Automobili aims to launch Albania’s first supercar
World Bank revises projection for Moldova’s 2020 GDP decline to 7.2%
Moldova’s PM resigns to prepare the ground for early elections
Socialist lawmakers in Moldova scrap settlement on $1bn bank frauds
Montenegro’s new ruling coalition carves up top state jobs
OUTLOOK 2021 Montenegro
Vast tide of floating waste threatens Balkan hydropower plants
North Macedonia's manufacturing confidence indicator down by 8.5 pp y/y in December
OUTLOOK 2021 North Macedonia
Transparency International warns of high corruption risk in CEE defence sectors
Moldova fears flooding from Ukraine's planned Dniester hydropower plants
Romania’s industrial recovery paused in November
OUTLOOK 2021 Serbia
Slovenia’s opposition files no-confidence motion against Jansa cabinet
UK Moneyhub picks Slovenia for post-Brexit European base
Slovenia’s dire COVID-19 situation in 4Q20 caused second economic dip
Slovenia’s Eligma completes €4mn funding round
BEYOND THE BOSPORUS: Let’s tentatively pencil in a date for Turkey’s hot money outflow
Turkish opposition leader lawsuit demands one lira from Erdogan, police probe “bald” interior minister posts
OUTLOOK 2021 Armenia
Armenia’s PM cautions conflict with Azerbaijan “still not settled” after trilateral meeting with Putin
COMMENT: Record high debt levels will slow post-coronavirus recovery, threaten some countries' financial stability, says IIF
Russia, Kazakhstan pushing for oil production increases on the back of coronavirus vaccine-fuelled oil price optimism
OUTLOOK 2021 Georgia
Georgia’s political kingpin Bidzina Ivanishvili quits politics
Modern-day “Robin Hood” inspires Georgians drowning in debt
Iran’s navy conducts missile drill while analyst argues Trump even capable of nuclear strike in final days
TEHRAN BLOG: Who’s more credible? Johnson backing Trump’s Nobel chances or Iran applauding arrest warrant for US president?
STOLYPIN: Scope for limited progress under Biden, so long as the past remains the past
Central Asia vaccination plans underwhelm, but governments look unruffled
Fears of authoritarianism as Kyrgyz populist wins landslide and backing for ‘Khanstitution’
OUTLOOK 2021 Kyrgyzstan
Mongolia's winter dzud set to be one of most extreme on record says Red Cross
Mongolian coal exports to China paralysed as Beijing demands virus testing of truck drivers
Mongolia fears economic damage as country faces up to its first local transmissions of coronavirus
Mongolia in lockdown after suffering first local coronavirus transmissions
OUTLOOK 2021 Tajikistan
China business briefing: Not happy with Kyrgyzstan
OUTLOOK 2021 Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan: How the Grinch stole New Year
Turkmenistan: The dammed united
COMMENT: Uzbekistan is being transformed, but where are the democratic reforms?
OUTLOOK 2021 Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan’s Makro positions itself for growth in a more competitive market
Download the pdf version
Vano Merabishvili was surprisingly energetic when he emerged from prison in February. The 51-year-old had been behind bars since 2013, put away for abuses of power allegedly committed between 2004 and 2012. Georgia’s former minister of interior and prime minister, he looked pale and had dark circles around his eyes. Nonetheless, he radiated defiance, declaring the intention to “keep fighting in order to remove this regime [the ruling Georgian Dream government] this year.”
Despite his apparent vigour, Merabishvili is something of a ghost. Georgia's former “top cop” and the architect of some of the country’s most important reforms, he remains intensely loved by some and deeply reviled by others. His release was another reminder of how the National Movement era still hangs over Georgian society, and of the gap that still separates supporters of Georgia’s previous government from those that carry bitter memories about its abuses.
From the outside, one can sympathize with both sides of this divide. After sweeping into power in 2003 in the bloodless Rose Revolution, the National Movement leveraged American and European support to swiftly build a functioning state. In less than three years, Georgia went from basket-case to poster child, eliminating petty bribery, attracting foreign direct investment, and putting Georgia on a path toward deeper integration with Nato and the European Union.
Merabishvili is rightly credited with these successes. Under his stern leadership, Georgia’s police agencies went from professional bribe taking rackets to functioning crime fighting outfits. These reforms took courage. In 2004, the then-Interior Minister fired 16,000 police officers during an anti-corruption campaign. The reforms paid off. Law enforcement became one of Georgia’s most respected institutions under Merabishvili’s leadership.
Police reform, and the man who spearheaded it, became a symbol of success for the National Movement. It also came to symbolize its abuses. By late 2006, most of the signature reforms were in place. While the country’s leaders devoted foreign policy to deepening their integration with NATO and the EU, they turned their internal focus to maintaining power over the system they created. For the National Movement, democracy wasn’t the point. Its real concern was building state institutions that could enable a market economy to flourish, and that could propel Georgia into those western institutions. If the public supported that agenda, all the better. If and when public support dried up, the National Movement was willing to resort to coercive methods.
Having built an effective state apparatus, the National Movement wielded that apparatus against its enemies, with Merabishvili landing some of the biggest blows. He is widely blamed for high-profile incidents of police brutality occurring in 2006 and 2007. The first, the infamous “Girgvliani Case,” involved the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Sandro Girgvliani, a young bank employee. Girgvliani was found dead in a Tbilisi suburb hours after publicly insulting Merabishvili’s wife Tamar Salakaia. (It has never been established whether the banker died directly from his injuries or froze to death after being left by his assailants.)
Merabishvili chose to personally oversee the investigation, leading to questions about the legitimacy of the outcome. Eventually, four Ministry of Interior employees, Geronti Alania, Mikheil Bibiluridze, Avtandil Aptsiauri, and Aleksandre Gachava, were tried and convicted for the murder. Notably, investigators working under Merabishvili’s direction found that the murder was unconnected to the young banker’s tirade against Salakaia.
While Merabishvili is not proven to have directly ordered Girgvliani’s murder, at the very least he interfered to prevent an impartial investigation. Some opposition voices go even further, speculating that such a drastic action by Ministry of Interior officials could not have taken place without Merabishvili’s approval.
In 2007, another incident, less shocking but larger in scope, indicated how far the National Movement was willing to go to maintain its hold over power. That November, large anti-corruption protests were used to justify a harsh government crackdown. After President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a nationwide state of emergency, Merabishvili’s security forces violently dispersed protestors from downtown Tbilisi and assaulted TV stations reporting critically on the government’s handling of the situation. The government blamed the protests, which were largely financed by pro-opposition businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, on a Kremlin plot to overthrow the government.
Then, in 2012, less than two weeks before parliamentary elections, political operatives working against the National Movement released video footage showing the torture and sexual abuse of prisoners in Tbilisi’s Gldani prison. (Note: Merabishvili, who oversaw Georgia’s penal system from 2004 to 2008, was not directly implicated in the scandal.) While the government hand-waved the abuse as an isolated incident, it added to steadily-growing public resentment of the government. Some commentators argued that it was a fitting indicator of the kind of state the National Movement had built. As Charles Fairbanks, a long-time Georgia watcher and board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, wrote at the time:
“I think Georgians have reacted as intensely as they have to the videos on the belief that they symbolize an underlying reality in the country. What people watched on TV wasn't just isolated acts but a brutal system leading to a very specifically bureaucratic program of violence: prisoners being lined up in an orderly, bureaucratic row, holding their files, to be beaten, taunted, and often defiled.”
There are other cases of abuse allegedly involving Merabishvili, too many to recount here.
The Perks of Not Being Hated
The United National Movement’s electoral defeat in 2012 in favour of Georgian Dream, an upstart political coalition that lacked a cohesive ideology, can be explained in simple terms: a significant portion of the electorate was exhausted after nearly nine years of upheaval (a dramatic cycle of reform, consolidation, and abuse of power; Russia’s invasion in 2008) and fed up with the National Movement’s arrogance and penchant for violence.
When Georgian Dream won an even larger majority in 2016, it was less because it had earned the support of the public and more because it had avoided inviting its hatred. In fact, Georgian Dream received a lower share of the popular vote than it had in 2012, a quirk of Georgia’s mixed-majoritarian electoral system that heavily favours incumbents.
After a period of relative calm and positive reform between 2012 and 2016, Georgia has undergone clear democratic backsliding. Both citizens and the country’s Western partners have grown frustrated with GD’s unwillingness to implement judicial reforms. The country has been led by four prime ministers in as many years. The party’s billionaire bankroller Bidzina Ivanishvili has exuded more arrogance as his grip over the country has grown tighter.
Ghosts Need Not Apply
Enter Merabishvili. Despite his chequered past, the former interior minister still enjoys support among a certain section of the population, roughly the same people who still pine for Saakashvili’s return to Georgia. His path to re-enter politics is unclear, however. Even he admitted this when addressing reporters on the day of his release: “Unfortunately, my closest friends and comrades are in different parties. I will, of course, meet all of them, listen to them and then make decisions.”
One path would be to reconnect with his former colleagues from the United National Movement. However, he isn’t necessarily capable of contributing to the former ruling party’s revival. In early 2017, the National Movement split into two parties, the offshoot, European Georgia, attempting to distance itself from Saakashvili and from the abuses committed between 2004 and 2012. Those people who stayed behind, including polarizing figures such as Nika Melia, Tina Bokuchava, and Salome Samadashvili, lack popularity outside of a committed group of party activists. Even Saakashvili appears uninterested in the ex-interior minister’s services, advising Merabishvili “not to engage in politics anymore.”
Merabishvili’s second option would be to attempt to foster a reconciliation between his former friends. This seems unlikely, given that European Georgia is rebranding, attempting to frame itself as a reasonable voice for reform rather than those who, less than a decade ago, regularly visited violence on their opponents. Party Chairman Giga Bokeria welcomed Merabishvili’s release from prison, referring to him as a “friend” and a victim of “political repression.” He did not, however, discuss the immediate political implications of Merabishvili’s return. Nor did he declare his intention to work with Merabishvili in the future.
There don’t appear to be many other options. The Lelo Movement, an upstart political project devoted to bringing down Georgian Dream, doesn’t seem interested in working with Merabishvili. While the party’s founder Mamuka Khazaradze welcomed Merabishvili’s release from prison, he said his party had no plans to cooperate with him, and distanced his party from comments Merabishvili made about “overthrowing” the current government.
Another option would be for Merabishvili to run as an independent in one of Georgia’s 30 majoritarian districts (assuming that Georgian Dream’s Parliamentary majority passed promised electoral reforms). Without party backing, however, it would be difficult for him to marshal enough resources to win a district.
Merabishvili doesn’t appear to have a viable political future. But if he chooses to re-enter politics, it will only reinforce the sentiment that Georgia needs a new path forward - an alternative to Georgian Dream, surely, but one that doesn’t recall the wounds of the National Movement era.
The author is a Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN) fellow. EDSN is an international research fellowship project of the Center of Social Sciences, Tbilisi and made possible with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.
here to continue reading this article
and 5 more for free or purchase
12 months full website access including
the bne Magazine for just $250/year.
Register to read the bne monthly magazine for
Password could contain only
and have 8-20 symbols length.
Please complete your registration by confirming your
A confirmation email has been sent to the email
address you provided.
can't be empty.
No user with
this email address.
Access recovery request has expired, or you are using
the wrong recovery token. Please, try again.
Access recover request has expired.
Please, try again.
To continue viewing our content you need to complete
the registration process.
Please look for an email that was sent to
with the subject line
"Confirmation bne IntelliNews access". This email will have
instructions on how to complete registration
process. Please check in your "Junk" folder in
case this communication was misdirected in your
If you have any questions please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sorry, but you have used all your free articles fro
this month for bne IntelliNews. Subscribe
to continue reading for only $119 per year.
Your subscription includes:
For the meantime we are also offering a free
digital weekly newspaper to subscribers to
the online package.
Click here for more subscription options,
including to the print version of our
flagship monthly magazine:
Take a trial to our premium daily news
service aimed at professional investors that
covers the 30 countries of emerging
For any other enquiries about our
products or corporate discounts please
contact us at
If you no longer wish to receive
Magazine annual print
Website & Archive
Combined package: web
access & magazine print
Take a trial to our premium daily news service
aimed at professional investors that
covers the 30 countries of emerging Europe: