Prague, 14 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Even before his landslide victory as Georgia's new president on 4 January, Mikheil Saakashvili had already begun a crackdown on alleged corruption. Although he lacked the proper authority to do so, as early as last month, he began ordering the arrests of a number of government officials suspected of illegally amassing fortunes under former President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Among the detainees is former Energy Minister David Mirtskhulava, whom the new leadership claims embezzled $6 million during his tenure. Mirtskhulava, who denies the accusations, suffered a mild heart attack during his arrest and remains under medical observation in a Tbilisi hospital.
Other prominent targets of the new administration include the head of the national soccer federation, Merab Zhordania, and former railroads chief Akaki Chkhaidze, both suspected of tax evasion.
Zhordania was arrested last month in Tbilisi and Chkhaidze, officially undergoing medical treatment in Batumi, the capital of Georgia's autonomous republic of Adjaria, has promised to meet investigators when he recovers. Both men deny the charges brought against them.
Last week, a court in Tbilisi ordered the arrest of former Kvemo Kartli region governor Levan Mamaladze on suspicion of bribe-taking. Mamaladze -- like Chkhaidze, a leading figure in Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia election coalition -- is in Russia and has denied any wrongdoing.
That corruption was rampant under Shevardnadze's rule is well known. Yet Georgia's new leaders must still demonstrate that their anticorruption drive does not aim simply at settling scores with political rivals or at legitimizing their fledgling power.
Opposition Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, who boycotted the recent presidential polls, last month accused the new leadership of favoring political loyalty over honesty, claiming some individuals chosen to replace Shevardnadze-era regional governors were tainted with financial misdeeds.
Natelashvili cited the case of Koba Buchukuri, the recently reappointed governor of the Mskheta-Mtianeti region. Shevardnadze fired Buchukuri in 2002 over accusations of embezzlement. Buchukuri has always denied the charges.
Regional governors are not the only officials affected by personnel changes.
On 12 January, Georgian Prosecutor-General Nugzar Gabrichidze unexpectedly handed in his resignation. Whether Gabrichidze voluntarily relinquished his duties or was forced out of office remains unclear.
Speaking to reporters that same day, Saakashvili made no secret he wanted his own man -- young lawyer Irakli Okruashvili -- to supervise the fight against crime and corruption. He also said he would require upright loyalty from the new prosecutor-general.
"What is needed at the head of the Prosecutor-General's Office is a new manager who is not tainted, who will not step back, who will bring the offensive against corruption to its successful end and who will have no fear before those clans that emerged during Shevardnadze's rule," Saakashvili said.
"I want to tell all those who defend criminal bosses that they will seriously get it in the teeth.... I advised my colleague and [current] justice minister to resort to force, to open fire and [physically] eliminate on the spot all criminals who would make any attempt to stir up the situation."
Saakashvili, who will officially become president on 25 January, went on to say that he expected the new chief prosecutor to provide him with full information about corrupt officials and vowed not to interfere in his work.
"When I become president, I will need at the head of the Prosecutor-General's Office a man who will keep his files ready and put them on my desk so that we could look through them together. The only thing I will ask him will be to act against every individual with equal firmness, without looking back to the past. Unlike Shevardnadze, I will never order my prosecutor-general to stop an investigation and refrain from arresting [a corrupt official]," Saakashvili said.
Okruashvili served as a deputy to Saakashvili when the president-elect was justice minister in Shevardnadze's government. He is also a member of Saakashvili's National Movement and is the former chairman of the Georgian chapter of corruption watchdog Transparency International. Okruashvili was appointed governor of the Shida-Kartli region shortly after the change of regime that occurred last November. He soon proceeded to conduct an anti-criminal operation in that area that officially includes the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
This week, Okruashvili called for a new legislation that would help fight crime and corruption."Parliament must be presented with a legal anticorruption package that would give the Prosecutor-General's Office in particular, and the state in general, the possibility of fully investigating those wanted people who are on the run and sentencing them in absentia," Okruashvili said.
Apart from Okruashvili, Saakashvili can rely on newly appointed Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili -- another National Movement leader -- and Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze to implement his anticorruption policy.
Georgia's new interior minister, who took office in late November, claims he dismissed more than 30 top officials in his first three weeks on the job. He has vowed to reduce Georgia's bloated police force by one-third within the next few months and raise the salaries of the remaining law enforcement officers to help fight corruption.
As a mark of support to the new Georgian leadership, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly agreed to advise Baramidze on how to cleanse his ministry of corrupt officials.
Washington has also recently allocated $3 million to pay U.S.-trained Georgian soldiers, as a way of rooting out corruption in the military. An agreement to that effect was signed yesterday by Richard Miles, the U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi, and Zurab Zhvania, Georgia's state minister.
Some initiatives taken by the Georgian president-elect and his allies to fight corruption, however, are more controversial.
Last week, security forces apprehended Zaza Ambroladze, a notorious underworld ringleader and a feared "vor v zakone," or guardian of the thieves' code, in the criminal hierarchy.
Such crime lords dominate prison life in many former Soviet republics. In Georgia, these individuals have long enjoyed close ties with law enforcement officers. Such ties are considered a significant contributor to corruption in the prison system and a major impediment to much-delayed prison reform.
Following Ambroladze's arrest, his supporters blocked the main highway that links Tbilisi to Kutaisi in western Georgia. The move prompted a swift reaction from Georgian anti-riot police, which used truncheons to disperse the protesters.
On 12 January, Saakashvili warned inmates who were reportedly planning to protest the heavy-handed police operation by refusing to meet with investigators. Saakashvili threatened them with tougher action.
"I want to tell all those who defend criminal bosses that they will seriously get it in the teeth. Some criminal groups are planning to organize an uprising in Georgia's prisons as a mark of solidarity [with Ambroladze]. I want all criminals inside and outside Georgian prisons to mark my words -- as the future president of Georgia and a former justice minister, I advised my colleague and [current] justice minister to resort to force, to open fire and [physically] eliminate on the spot all criminals who would make any attempt to stir up the situation," Saakashvili said.
Saakashvili's warning did not go unheeded. Georgian media yesterday said inmates in Kutaisi, Zugdidi, and Tbilisi had put an end to their disobedience movement.
The president-elect's tough stance has raised eyebrows even among his own supporters.
Leaders of the "Kmara" (Enough) student movement that actively participated in the street protests that paved the way for Shevardnadze's resignation last November have expressed their dismay at the recent police actions.
"That police should use rubber truncheons and resort to physical harassment to disperse protesters is inadmissible," Kmara activist Tea Tutberidze told reporters on 12 January. "We haven't fought so that just a formal change of regime occurs and the existing system remains in place."