Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili first hit the headlines exactly nine years ago when he told "The Washington Post" that then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was "tired" and had no interest in implementing democratic reform.
Those comments, predictably, triggered a storm of controversy. Merabishvili, then a parliament deputy representing Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia, initially claimed he was misquoted, but two days later conceded
his comments were accurately reported.
That incident pales, however, in comparison with the fallout from an interview Merabishvili gave to the Russian daily "Kommersant
" last week.
In that interview, Merabishvili made condescending and derogatory comments about the opposition in general and individual political figures; dismissed out of hand suggestions that Georgia is not the beacon of democracy and media freedom President Mikheil Saakashvili's claims it is; and warned that the 2008 war with Russia that ended in Georgia's loss of control over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia "is not over."
Georgian opposition politicians have reacted with anger and outrage. Former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, now head of the opposition Movement for A Just Georgia, told journalists on April 7 that Merabishvili's flippant prediction about the upcoming Tbilisi mayoral election may come back to haunt him. Merabishvili had jokingly claimed that the ruling United National Movement is so popular, and support for opposition candidates is so low, that it might prove necessary to revise downward the number of votes cast for the ruling party's candidate. (Saakashvili, by contrast, pledged in early February to ensure that the ballot is fair.)
Even though Merabishvili stressed he was speaking in jest, People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili construed that statement as evidence that the "Georgian authorities will stop at nothing to win" that election.
Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, whom Merabishvili implicitly branded a Russian puppet, said Merabishvili, together with parliament Defense and Security Committee head Givi Targamadze, should be brought to trial. Merabishvili said that during the brief August 2008 war, Targamadze had offered the Russian military $50,000 to destroy the monument to Josef Stalin in Gori, Stalin's birthplace, but that offer was rejected.
Opposition parliament deputy Jondi Baghaturia demanded that Merabishvili be required to explain his offhand comments about Georgia's relations with the West to the National Security Council.
Even Merabishvili's own ministry was constrained to issue a formal statement saying that certain of Merabishvili's responses were taken out of context. But in a subsequent interview
with the Georgian daily "24 saati" on April 10, Merabishvili rejected most of the objections expressed.
Merabishvili's apparent conviction that he is beyond criticism, and can pronounce freely on any issue, whether or not it relates to his professional duties, is hardly surprising, given that he has long been regarded as the most powerful political figure in Georgia after Saakashvili.
Born in 1968 in the impoverished southern, largely Armenian-populated region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, Merabishvili graduated from a technical university in Tbilisi in 1992, when Georgia was struggling with economic collapse and a breakdown of law and order following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ouster of democratically elected President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
He was elected to parliament in 1999 from Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia, but three years later quit that party together with a group of other young, pro-Western politicians, including Saakashvili.
Following Saakashvili's election as president in January 2004, Merabishvili was named first National Security Council secretary and then, a few months later, minister of state security. That ministry was soon subsumed into the Interior Ministry, and Merabishvili was named to head the "super-ministry" in December 2004.
In that capacity, according to former human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari, Merabishvili condoned the formation within the ministry of "a punitive group that stands above the law and that can liquidate any given individual if doing so is considered expedient." The independent daily "Rezonansi" on February 6, 2009, quoted members of the Independent Lawyers' Trade Union as calculating that since 2003, some 70 people have been killed by such "death squads."
Under Merabishvili's watch, the ministry has also been accused of tapping the offices and telephones of prominent oppositionists. He and Targamadze were implicated in January in an apparent attempt
by the Georgian authorities to influence the vote during the January 17 Ukrainian presidential election in order to secure a victory for then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Over the past year, opposition politicians and political observers in Tbilisi have expressed concern that Merabishvili has become so powerful that he now aspires to succeed Saakashvili as president in 2013, given that the Georgian Constitution bars Saakashvili from seeking a third consecutive presidential term.
One analyst has suggested
that it was Merabishvili who leaked to the media a taped telephone conversation implicating Saakashvili in the fake news broadcast last month of a purported new Russian incursion into Georgia. Saakashvili has repeatedly denied
any advance knowledge of the content of that program, which triggered mass panic and several protests by Western ambassadors in Tbilisi.
With less than two months to go before the May 30 elections for Tbilisi mayor, pundits have suggested that Merabishvili is blocking the nomination of incumbent Gigi Ugulava, a close Saakashvili associate, as the ruling United National Movement's candidate. Some 30 percent of the country's voters reside in the capital, and analysts believe that whoever is elected mayor will stand a good chance of parlaying that victory into a presidential win in 2013.
Ugulava issued a statement
on April 12 saying he will make a formal announcement about his candidacy "in the coming weeks." The deadline is April 30. Ugulava further stressed that he will do all in his power to ensure that the ballot is free and fair and "sets new standards for openness, transparency, and public confidence."
Ugulava also rejected
point by point as erroneous and misleading a recent report by the NGO Transparency International Georgia that noted an "unprecedented increase" in budget funding for the Tbilisi city council in the run-up to the election.