On March 22, the Georgian Prosecutor General 's office summoned former Presdent Mikheil Saakashvili
for questioning on March 27 in connection with 10 ongoing criminal investigations, including the pardoning of Interior Ministry officials jailed for the 2005 murder
of banker Sandro Girgvliani; the suppression of a purported mutiny
at a military base in May 2009; and the circumstances of the death in February 2005 of then Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. On March 20, photos of Zhvania's body were posted on the Internet
that reportedly show head injuries that call into question the coroner's verdict that Zhvania and his companion Raul Yusupov died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective gas heater.
Saakashvili, who left Georgia late last year after his second term expired, swiftly rejected the summons point-blank, attributing it to a clandestine deal
between Georgian businessman and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition defeated Saakashvili's United National Movement
(ENM) in the October 2012 parliamentary election, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Saakashvili said pressure on him has intensified in recent weeks as a result of his unequivocal public support for the new Ukrainian leadership in its efforts to withstand Moscow. Saakashvili opined that because of those efforts, he has become "a bone lodged in Putin's throat."
Other prominent members of Saakashvili's ENM have advanced similar arguments. Former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava, who has been charged with money-laundering
and abuse of his official position, said the prosecutor's office has become "a blind political weapon" in the hands of Ivanishvili and his successor and political protege Irakli Gharibashvili. Ugulava said that if Saakashvili were to accede
to the prosecutor's demand, his return to Tbilisi could trigger "civil confrontation."
Former National Security Council head Giga Bokeria, for his part, said that all the criminal cases in which Saakashvili has been summoned for questioning were "fabricated" with the explicit intention of undermining the former president.
ENM parliamentarians Giorgi Vashadze and Giorgi Kandelaki drew parallels with developments in Ukraine. Bokeria described the prosecutor's summons as "a direct attempt to make Europe say no to our EU and NATO integration," while Kandelaki characterized it as a bid to "sabotage" Georgia's aspirations to European integration.
Those arguments could be deemed spurious for at least three reasons. First, Georgian Dream unequivocally supports and has pledged to continue the drive for NATO and European Union membership that constituted the primary tenet of the ENM's foreign policy since its advent to power in November 2003. (Georgian Dream's parallel efforts to establish a basis for dialogue with Russia reflect the new leadership's pragmatism and realism rather than any overt geo-political preference.)
As recently as March 21, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze hailed
the EU's stated intention
of strengthening its political association and economic integration with Georgia.
Second, Georgian Dream is on the same side of the barricades as the ENM with regard to Russia's encroachment in Ukraine. Giorgi Margvelashvili, Saakashvili's successor as president, has rejected as illegal
the March 17 referendum in which the population of Crimea voted for the region's unification with the Russian Federation. Like Saakashvili, Margvelashvili has publicly argued
that it was the international community's failure to "stand up to" Russia's intervention in South Ossetia August 2008 that convinced the Russian leadership it could annex Crimea with impunity.
And third, the likelihood of a civil confrontation in Georgia between supporters of Georgian Dream and the ENM seems to be remote, if not non-existent, in light of the most recent opinion poll
conducted on behalf of the National Democratic Institute, according to which just 9 percent of respondents characterized the ENM as the political party with which they felt the closest affinity, compared with 61 percent for Georgian Dream.
If one discounts ENM members' less than convincing attempts to write off the prosecutor's office summons as dictated by the Kremlin, then it appears that three possible explanations remain. First, Prosecutor General Giorgi Badashvili has bowed to pressure from a faction within the Georgian leadership that still considers Saakashvili and the ENM a threat and wants them discredited and neutralized at all cost, despite the probable backlash.
Second, due to lack of experience, Badashvili
, 33, has misconstrued whatever circumstantial evidence may be available linking Saakashvili with the investigations in question. Badashvili has held that office for just two months. He replaced Otar Partskhaladze, who was constrained to step down in December 2013 after it became known
that he had a criminal conviction in Germany.
Or third, the prosecutor general's office does in fact have sufficient evidence against Saakashvili to forestall the international outcry that the summons is likely to provoke. As analyst Zaal Anajaparidze told the website ghn.ge
, the crimes in which the prosecutor's office suspects Saakashvili's involvement are such that in any democratic law-based state a current or former leader would be required to answer for them before the law. But for that reason, the prosecutor's evidence must be absolutely watertight and "leave no question marks either at home or abroad."
That need is all the more imperative insofar as, ever since the ENM's election defeat, its members have systematically branded successive arrests of former high-ranking government officials politically motivated persecution. Those allegations impelled some representatives of the international community to warn Ivanishvili
against "selective justice,"
Ivanishvili for his part said in late 2012
that he was against any attempt to impeach Saakashvili, as doing so "would look like political revenge." More recently, Georgian Dream parliamentarian Levan Berdzenishvili was quoted as opposing Saakashvili's arrest
on the grounds that "the West's reaction would be extremely negative" and "it would hinder our European integration."
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, however, has affirmed that
, if Saakashvili (who does not enjoy immunity from prosecution) fails to present himself for questioning, the prosecutor's office will launch a search for him "in accordance with the law."
Gharibashvili was quoted as telling the newspaper "Kviris palitra" that "no one is above the law" and that his team "is not out to build a state in which some people are privileged and unassailable."
-- Liz Fuller