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After Elections, Many Georgian Officials Disappear, Leave Town

Defense Minister Dimitri Shashkin has reportedly left on a "business trip."
As the historic peaceful transfer of political power unfolds in Georgia, some outgoing officials with the former government apparently are not waiting around to find out how the story ends.

Since the October 1 elections, which were won by the opposition Georgian Dream coalition of billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, a growing number of senior officials and former officials from the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement have disappeared. Georgian media have been rife with speculation that they have fled the country in fear of possible prosecution by the new authorities.

Among those missing in action since the election results became clear are Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, Defense Minister Dimitri Shashkin, and former Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who resigned in the wake of a scandal following the recent release of videos showing prison inmates being abused.

Also missing are former Deputy Defense Minister Data Akhalaia, who is Bacho Akhalaia's brother, former Corrections and Legal Assistance Minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, who also resigned following the prison-video scandal, and Georgian Railways Director-General Irakli Ezugbaia.

Officially On Vacation

Former United National Movement lawmaker Givi Targamadze, formerly the chairman of the parliamentary Defense and National Security Committee, also reportedly left Georgia earlier this month.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contacted the offices of most of these officials and was told they are officially on vacation and no information on their whereabouts or expected return date is available.

Defense Ministry spokeswoman Nino Potrzhebskaia said Shashkin left on a business trip to the United States, but she did not know where he is now or when he will be back.

Neither Saakashvili nor acting Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili have commented on the disappearances.

The ministers had all turned in their resignations following the election, although the government pledged to continue working until a new cabinet was installed.

Georgian Dream coalition leaders have called for investigations into unspecified individuals from the Saakashvili government, despite efforts by both sides to carry out a smooth transfer of power.

Lia Mukhashavria, a lawyer with the Tbilisi-based NGO Human Rights Priority, notes that merely leaving the country is not illegal and, despite the wave of rumors, any investigations into the missing officials would need to focus on specific allegations.

"An investigation would have to be launched. If it is centered on a specific fact, then these facts will dictate which people will be implicated," Mukhashavria says. "If the investigation is focused on an individual, a high-ranking official, then, of course, that person has to be stripped of his position so that the investigation can be carried out. What we have now are just rumors that cannot be the basis of a judicial procedure."

On October 15, Saakashvili issued a decree under which hundreds of high-level officials in all three branches of government will be allowed to keep their diplomatic passports for up to one year after leaving their posts.

The decree covers parliament deputies, members of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, the prime minister and government ministers, the head of the national bank, the mayor of Tbilisi, and top-level officials in the presidential, government, and legislative administrations.

Passports For Life

In addition, Saakashvili and his wife will be able to keep their diplomatic passports for life.

Tea Tsulukiani, who has been nominated to become the next justice minister, visited the ministry on October 9 to find that Justice Minister Adeishvili was missing and no one was in charge. "Even if he has not left Georgia, I know for sure that he has left his agency," she told Maestro TV. "He left his responsibilities. He abandoned a huge structure with a lot of employees. He just went away."

David Jandieri, an aide to Tsulukiani who is a Georgian Dream representative on the joint transition working group with the United National Movement, describes Tsulukiani's visit.

"After the announcement about the transfer of power was made, Tea Tsulukiani and I had a meeting with Deputy Justice Minister Tina Burjaliani. She informed us that the minister was not in Georgia because he was on vacation," Jandieri says.

"He went on vacation soon after the elections, and in his absence his authority had been delegated to the deputy. This was the only explanation Ms. Burjaliani provided."

On October 16, Saakashvili restored Ivanishvili's Georgian citizenship, which had been stripped in the run-up to the election. The move clears the way for Ivanishvili to become the next prime minister when parliament convenes on October 20.

Nonetheless, tensions remain high. Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who is not a member of Georgian Dream, told Interfax on October 12 that Saakashvili and other officials had committed "a huge number of crimes" and should face "a fair trial" and "go to prison for a long time."

On October 11, Ivanishvili adviser Ghia Khukhashvili told journalists that Georgian Dream was examining the situation at Georgian Railways and that new leadership there was likely.

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Tarkhnishvili contributed to this story from Tbilisi