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Standoff Between Georgian President, Premier Turns Even Uglier


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

The already tense political situation in Georgia has deteriorated even further over the past week. President Mikheil Saakashvili responded on December 21 to the arrest of several former senior officials in connection with suspected bribery and tax evasion by implicitly threatening to dismiss Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and the government he heads.

Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (KO) coalition defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM) in a close-fought parliamentary election on October 1. Since then, the new leadership has arrested a number of former senior officials, including former Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who is widely suspected of condoning torture and abuses in the country’s jails.

It has also announced its intention to reverse some crucial decisions taken by the ENM, including the relocation of the Georgian parliament from Tbilisi to a new building in Kutaisi (Georgia’s second-largest city) that cost some 360 million laris ($217.5 million).

Saakashvili and his closest associates, including former parliament speaker David Bakradze and Ivanishvii’s predecessor as prime minister, Vano Merabishvili, have retaliated by accusing the new government of incompetence, failing to deliver on its election campaign promises, and of seeking to destroy everything positive the ENM accomplished during its nine years in power. They have also criticized as politically motivated reprisals the arrests of Akhalaia and other senior members of Saakashvili’s team.

That criticism, and the concern expressed by NATO, EU, and U.S. State Department officials over the resulting perception of “selective justice” have not deterred the new government from what it says are its ongoing efforts to bring to justice former officials suspected of serious financial and other crimes.

At the same time, it is conceivable that Saakashvili has interpreted that international concern as an expression of tacit unequivocal Western support for himself and his team, just as some argue he misconstrued crucial U.S. communications on the eve of the ill-fated attack on Tskhinvali in August 2008 that triggered a brief but devastating conflict with Russia.

The most recent escalation of tensions began on December 19, when former Energy Minister Aleksandre Khetaguri, former Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia (since last month head of the TV channel Rustavi-2), and four other people were arrested in connection with the alleged payment of a $1 million bribe to avert a tax inspection that could have uncovered tax evasion on the part of the Telasi electricity distribution company, which is partly owned by the Russian energy giant RAO EES. Overriding a request by the prosecution, the Tbilisi City Court released Khetaguri, Gvaramia, Telasi head Devi Kandelaki, and former Deputy Economy Minister Kakha Damenia three days later on bail of 30,000 laris ($18,127) each.

Then on December 21-22, the Interior Ministry summoned former Prime Minister Nika Gilauri, former Finance Minister Dmitry Gvindadze, and former Economy and Sustainable Development Minister Vera Kobalia for questioning in connection with what the Interior Ministry termed a deliberate attempt by unspecified government agencies to bankrupt Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank.

Also last week, the Georgian parliament's KO faction passed in the first reading draft legislative amendments changing the composition of the High Council of Justice, the body empowered to appoint, dismiss, and discipline judges. In addition, parliament discussed draft legislation that would subordinate the state protection service responsible for ensuring the security of the president and other top officials to the prime minister. It is currently subordinate to the president.

Finally, on December 19, supporters of KO campaigning for Saakashvili’s impeachment threw stones at the presidential motorcade in Kutaisi and screamed abuse at parliament deputies. Five people have since been arrested in connection with that incident, which Ivanishvili categorically condemned.

Saakashvili publicly construed the planned subordination of the presidential security guards to Ivanishvili as an attempt to strip him completely of any personal protection. He said he does not need either a presidential plane or an armored automobile, and is prepared to drive his mother’s antiquated car himself and meet with the public without bodyguards. Parliament speaker David Usupashvili criticized that statement as “political blackmail.” He told Caucasus Knot that the parliament had submitted to Saakashvili for comment various proposals concerning his personal security, but had not received a response.

As for the planned amendments to the composition of the High Justice Council, Saakashvili told a press conference on December 20 that they “will amount to burying the independent judiciary in Georgia once and for all.” He said he will veto the draft law if it is passed in its current form.

Saakashvili said the ENM is under permanent attack from “a force that does not accept any democratic rules of the game.” He dubbed KO a “band of destroyers” out to “destroy everything we have created just to spite us,” and compared them to the Taliban. He said their “inappropriate concepts” pose a “huge threat” to Georgia’s future, but that even in 50 years Ivanishvili could not succeed in destroying all the good that the ENM had done.

Saakashvili also dismissed as totally unfounded the charges against Gvaramia and demanded his immediate release from custody. Saakashvili warned that “everything will be over very soon and very badly for those” who engineered Gvaramia’s arrest. “No one will be able to establish a regime in Georgia, which they [apparently referring PM Ivanishvili’s government] aspire to establish; they are very close to a dangerous edge,” Saakashvili continued.

The Russian dailies “Nezavisimaya gazeta” and “Kommersant” construed those comments as an implicit threat to dismiss Ivanishvili and his government, which Saakashvili is constitutionally empowered to do at any time. On the other hand, as constitutional legal expert Vakhushti Menabde explained to the news agency GHN, Saakashvili may not dissolve parliament during the first six months after it is elected (i.e. before April 1, 2013). After that time, he may dissolve parliament if it rejects three consecutive candidates he nominates for prime minister and schedule new parliamentary elections.

Whether it would be in Saakashvili’s (and the ENM’s) interest to precipitate a political crisis at this juncture is more than questionable, however. True, Saakashvili told an emergency congress of the ENM on December 23 that he is convinced the party “will definitely win the final round.” But the findings of an opinion poll conducted in late November on behalf of the National Democratic Institute found strong public support for KO: 63 percent of respondents identified it as the “party closest” to them, compared with just 10 percent who favored the ENM. By contrast, in the October 1 election, KO garnered 54.97 percent of the proportional vote and the ENM, 40.34 percent.

It would thus seem to be tactically more advantageous for the ENM to bide its time, concentrate on rebranding itself, and wait to see whom KO selects as its candidate for the October 2013 presidential ballot, in which Ivanishvili says he will not participate. Ivanishvili for his part has sought to play down Saakashvili’s implicit threats. He told journalists in Tbilisi on December 24 that “The process of restoring justice which is under way in the country will not be stopped by the hysterical statements of the opposition. This process will continue....One of the major [preelection] promises of our team was on restoring a sense of justice, and it will be delivered without any preconditions.”

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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