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Who In Georgia Is Merabishvili's Arrest Meant To Scare?


Former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili attends a preliminary hearing of his case at the court in Kutaisi on May 22.
Former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili attends a preliminary hearing of his case at the court in Kutaisi on May 22.
AKHALTSIKHE, Georgia -- You'd expect to hear a chorus of hometown support for former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili following his May 21 arrest for corruption.

Instead, residents of Akhaltsikhe in southwestern Georgia are divided on the fate of the man who served as chief enforcer to President Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) during its near decade in power.

"[Merabishvili's arrest] is justified," one young woman tells RFE/RL. "The United National Movement has left so many black spots on our lives for the past nine years. Vano Merabishvili should be held responsible for them."

"The parliament is intentionally doing this against him," says an elderly man. "He did a lot of good things for Akhaltsikhe. I think it is unjust what they are doing with him now."

"Personally, I was arrested before the October elections only because I supported the Georgian Dream coalition," says another man. "I had to go through terrible things. People were very afraid of Merabishvili; they would be unjustly imprisoned. His arrest is definitely a step forward for our new government."

Merabishvili, who also served as interior minister and continues to lead Saakashvili's once-dominant United National Movement, was arrested together with former Health Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, who now serves as governor of Georgia's eastern Kakheti region.

Merabishvili and Chiaberashvili were charged with attempting to buy off voters in the October 2012 parliamentary elections and using state funds to sponsor the United National Movement.

On May 22, Merabishvili was ordered by a judge to be held in jail for two months pending his trial. Chiaberashvili was released on $13,000 bail.

Denies Selective Justice

The two men are the latest presidential allies to be targeted by law enforcement since the rise of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in parliamentary elections last year, prompting concerns that Ivanishvili has been using the judiciary to settle old political scores.

Vano Merabishvili (left) and Zurab Chiaberashvili appear in court in Kutaisi on May 22.
Vano Merabishvili (left) and Zurab Chiaberashvili appear in court in Kutaisi on May 22.

Ivanishvili denies using selective justice but has also suggested there's a "high probability" that Saakashvili may eventually face prosecution for a range of presidential misdeeds, including a violent crackdown on Tbilisi protesters in 2011.

Political scientist Ghia Nodia, who served as education minister under Saakashvili, says Merabishvili's arrest is a clear attempt to crush Saakashvili allies.

Nodia adds that the focus may now turn to Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, who has been mentioned as a potential ENM candidate in October's presidential election and who is already under investigation for alleged abuse of office.

"This is directly aimed at weakening the organization of the United National Movement," Nodia says. "[The government's] targets are important and influential government figures whom they view as dangerous, as well as people who control resources. Following this logic, the next one obviously is going to be Gigi Ugulava. Now we can only speculate if any measures will be taken against President Saakashvili once he will be out of office."

Rift With Orthodox Church?

Elsewhere, however, reaction to Merabishvili's arrest has been muted, with some Georgians even suggesting the case has less to do with Saakashvili's circle than it does with last week's brutal violence against gay-rights demonstrators organized by the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili
Dozens of people were injured in the frenzied attack on peaceful protesters, which was all the more shocking for its ties to the church.

Ivanishvili, who has defended equal rights for sexual minorities, had pledged the May 17 protesters would receive full police protection.

But the scale of the riots, which saw a mob of more than 10,000 attack a handful of gay and transgender activists, appeared to catch Ivanishvili unprepared -- and underscored an apparent rift with the church, which had informally backed Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition during the October elections.

READ: Four Georgian Men Arrested Over Antigay Violence

Ivanishvili issued a powerful condemnation of the attacks on May 21, saying that "being a member of the clergy cannot be an alibi for anyone." He added that "if any member of the clergy violated the law, he will be held responsible."

On the same day, Patriarch Ilia II, who had earlier called for the gay-rights demonstration to be banned, issued a statement expressing regret for the violence and acknowledging that some clergy behaved "impolitely" in confronting demonstrators. He added, however, that the ideas of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists "are completely unacceptable in Georgia."

Some observers have suggested that the church may be slowly replacing ENM as the new political counterpoise to Georgian Dream and that Ivanishvili, embarrassed by his failure to prevent the antigay violence, may have chosen this moment to arrest Merabishvili as a show of potency.

'Will He Succeed?'

Merab Basilaia, who heads the center for civil studies at Ilia University, suggests Ivanishvili, emboldened by the arrest of Saakashvili's indomitable ally, may now take on his political challengers in the church, no matter how high their rank.

"I don't think it's correct to call Merabishvili's arrest a cover-up [for failing to arrest the May 17 perpetrators]," says Basilaia. "I think they're trying to counterbalance the actions Ivanishvili is going to have to take. And by that I mean arresting members of the clergy. And by clergy I mean not low-ranking priests but concrete individuals from high up in the hierarchy. Ivanishvili would like to show that he is impartial. Is he going to succeed in pulling this off? I don't know."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting in Georgia by Nona Mchedlishvili and Nino Kharadze

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