The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office announced on July 28 that criminal charges (of exceeding his authority on multiple occasions with recourse to violence) have been filed against ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and four other former senior officials.
Those charges relate to the use of excessive force, apparently on Saakashvili's orders, to break up antigovernment demonstrations in Tbilisi in November 2007 and the subsequent trashing of the premises of the independent TV station Imedi that had criticized the government's actions.
Rumors of Saakashvili's impending indictment had been circulating since the visit to Tbilisi last week of three prominent international experts on criminal law. According to the website civil.ge, they were British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice, who led The Hague tribunal prosecution of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic; former Israeli state prosecutor Moshe Lador, who indicted former Israeli President Moshe Katzav and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; and Paul Coffey, the former head of the UN Mission in Kosovo.
The three were asked, and agreed, to assist and advise on unspecified "high-profile, politically sensitive cases involving high-ranking public officials, in order to meet the highest possible standards of impartiality, fairness, due process, consistency, and transparency." The subsequent bringing of formal charges against Saakashvili suggests that they evaluated the body of evidence against him and concluded that it is adequate to deflect any argument that the charges are unsubstantiated and/or politically motivated.
On July 26, just days after those consultations, the Prosecutor-General's Office formally summoned Saakashvili for the second time in four months for questioning as a witness in connection with several ongoing investigations. Saakashvili failed to appear as requested on July 28. Instead, he responded with a statement on Facebook dismissing the summons as "a farce" and accusing the current Georgian leadership of seeking to destroy the "reformist legacy" it inherited from his United National Movement (ENM) and himself personally. He further accused the ruling Georgian Dream (KO) coalition that won the October 2012 parliamentary elections of focusing its entire energy on persecuting its ENM "opponents," rather than strengthening and developing the country.
As in late March, when he similarly refused to comply with a summons to the Prosecutor-General's Office, Saakashvili further claimed to be the victim of a clandestine agreement between the present Georgian government, which he perceives as acting on orders from Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Saakashvili believes is out to punish him for his unequivocal support for Ukraine.
The bringing of formal charges against Saakashvili constitutes a point of no return in the increasingly acrimonious standoff between the current and former leaderships. Ever since the ENM's election defeat, members of that party have consistently rejected as political persecution each successive arrest of a Saakashvili-era official on criminal charges.
That criticism initially led several prominent members of the international community to issue warnings to then-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to avoid even creating the impression of a witch-hunt against former ministers and officials.
For example, visiting Tbilisi in November 2012, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton told Ivanishvili that "investigations into past wrongdoings must be -- and must be seen to be -- impartial, transparent, and in compliance with due process."
Since then, several prominent former officials, including former Interior Minister and Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili and former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, have been brought to trial. Merabishvili was sentenced in February to 4 1/2 years in prison on a charge of exceeding his authority by condoning unnecessary violence during the dispersal by force of opposition demonstrators in Tbilisi in May 2011. He faces further charges in connection with the murder in 2006 by Interior Ministry personnel of banker Sandro Girgvliani.
Akhalaia was acquitted last fall of subjecting special-forces personnel to torture or inhumane treatment, but still faces charges of beating six prisoners in 2006 while in charge of the penitentiary system and of instigating the torture of detainees in 2011.
Merabishvili is one of the four persons charged jointly with Saakashvili in connection with the November 2007 crackdown on the opposition. The other three are former Defense Minister David Kezerashvili, former Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, and former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava.
International arrest warrants were issued in November 2013 for Adeishvili, whose whereabouts is not known, and Kezerashvili, whom a Tbilisi court recently acquitted of charges of bribe-taking. Ugulava was arrested and remanded in custody in early July on suspicion of money-laundering and using budget funds to finance the ENM parliamentary election campaign in 2012.
A second perennial accusation levelled by the ENM against Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream is similarly dubious. The claim that Ivanishvili, who stepped down in November 2013, is Putin's "puppet," and that the new leadership is so desperate to avoid antagonizing Moscow that it has abandoned the pro-Western geopolitical orientation it agreed last year to write into the country's constitution is difficult to reconcile with their commitment to continue the negotiations that culminated in the signing in late June of an Association Agreement between Georgia and the European Union. If Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Giorgi Margvelashvili, Saakashvili's successor as president, had wanted the cozy client relationship with Russia that the ENM imputes to them, they would hardly have pushed ahead with the signing of that agreement, especially in light of Moscow's reprisals against Ukraine for its EU aspirations.
The ENM's overt hostility toward KO has given rise to speculation in both Georgian and Russian media that the party might seek to destabilize the domestic political situation this fall. In April, Interior Minister Aleksandre Chikaidze alluded in a newspaper interview to that possibility, which Garibashvili promptly dismissed.
The results of the recent local elections, in which the ENM failed to win a single post of mayor or district-council head, cast serious doubts on the degree of popular support the ENM could rely on in the event that it launched a bid to topple the current authorities. A poll conducted in April on behalf of the National Democratic Institute estimated support for the ENM at just 15 percent nationwide.
Following the runoff vote in early July, the joint monitoring team fielded by the U.S., U.K., and Dutch embassies in Tbilisi released a statement giving a generally positive assessment of the conduct of the second round and encouraging "all parties to work together to promote economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and advance Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations."
That exhortation cut little ice with the ENM, judging by the vitriolic criticism of KO its parliamentary faction gave vent to during the debate last week on the new ministerial nominees proposed by Garibashvili, who retaliated at the end of the two-hour debate by criticizing the ENM as an "unconstructive and unhealthy force." (Garibashvili's stated rationale for axing five ministers and moving two more to other posts had been that the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU requires that ministers be "bolder and more efficient" and more prepared to take risks in order to deliver fully on KO's election promises.)
In his opening remarks prior to the vote the following day on the composition of the reshuffled cabinet, Garibashvili nonetheless argued that "we should start trying to heal the wounds from the difficult years." At the same time, he reaffirmed that doing so "does not mean that anyone intends to turn a blind eye to crimes and reject an investigation of those crimes that caused damage to our people and our country."
The ENM legislators walked out prior to the vote on the new cabinet, which was endorsed unanimously by the 89 KO parliament members.
-- Liz Fuller