Both men have since bowed out of national politics, but their departures have not served to alleviate tensions. Saakashvili’s second presidential term expired last month, and he has since has left Georgia for the United States to lecture at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Boston's Tufts University during the spring 2014 semester. His successor as president is Ivanishvili’s handpicked candidate, the bland and self-effacing Giorgi Margvelashvili, who according to one Georgian blogger walked to his office in the old chancellery building on his first morning as president), having announced even before his inauguration that the grandiose presidential palace Saakashvili had had built for himself will henceforth house the Georgian-U.S. Technological University.
Ivanishvili for his part, too, has withdrawn from full-time politics to devote his energies to supporting civil society, naming as his successor his erstwhile aide and protégé, Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, 31. But Georgian Dream’s ongoing efforts to bring to justice two former close Saakashvili associates implicated in large-scale embezzlement of public funds has impelled the two men -- former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and longtime Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava -- to retaliate with damaging allegations against new Prosecutor General Otar Partskhaladze, a Gharibashvili protégé.
Merabishvili was arrested on May 21 and charged, jointly with former Health Care Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, with diverting some 5 million laris ($2.895 million) from public funds to finance the UNM’s 2012 parliamentary election campaign under the guise of creating over 20,000 jobs. One week later, an additional charge of exceeding his authority was brought against Merabishvili in connection with the role as interior minister in the police crackdown on demonstrators in Tbilisi during the night of May 25-26, 2011, during which one police officer and three protesters died.
Merabishvili denies both charges as politically motivated persecution. He faces a separate charge of seeking to obstruct the course of justice in connection with the murder in 2006 of banker Sandro Girgvliani, who was found killed hours after an altercation in a Tbilisi bar involving Merabishvili’s wife and several Interior Ministry personnel. In a ruling handed down in 2011, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that "different branches of state power -- including the Ministry of the Interior, the prosecution authority, the domestic courts and the president of Georgia -- had all acted in concert in preventing justice from being done."
Testifiying in court in Kutaisi on December 17, Merabishvili said that three days earlier he was taken from his cell in the early hours of the morning to a meeting with Partskhaladze and another man he did not name. Merabishvili quoted Partskhaladze as having asked him to help prosecutors clarify the circumstances of the death in February 2005 of then-Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and to provide information about Saakashvili’s bank accounts. Zhvania’s brother Giorgi has accused Merabishvili of helping to create the impression that Zhvania and his companion died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but not of killing him.
According to Merabishvili, Partskhaladze threatened that if he failed to cooperate things would “go badly” for him and he would not leave jail as long as Gharibashvili’s government remained in power. Partskhaladze immediately issued a statement rejecting Merabishvili’s allegations as “absurd” and denying having tried to pressure him. Partskhaladze did not, however, explicitly deny that the meeting took place. Merabishvili’s lawyers subsequently demanded the CCTV footage recorded by prison surveillance cameras on the morning in question.
The government officials directly involved apparently failed to present a united front in the face of Merabishvili’s allegations. Human rights defender Ucha Nanuashvili called for an official probe “to provide answers to all questions” after meeting with Merabishvili on December 19. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani said she is convinced that Merabishvili’s claims are untrue, but she nonetheless endorsed the proposed enquiry.
But former human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari, now minister with responsibility for the penitentiary system, denied categorically that Merabishvili had been taken anywhere from the prison. Therefore, Subari argued, no investigation is necessary.
Gharibashvili, for his part, dismissed Merabishvili’s claim as “unserious” and hinted that Merabishvili is mentally unstable. “If we want to know something there are a whole set of procedures in place and investigators will go and interrogate him,” Gharibashvili was quoted as saying. But Gharibashvili’s argument that “we have no time for and we cannot afford to react to Merabishvili’s allegations and suspend ministers and prosecutors from their offices upon [Merabishvili’s] allegations. We have more important work to do,” risks inadvertently substantiating the doubts and suspicions engendered by Merabishvili’s claims.
Like Merabishvili, Ugulava faces multiple criminal charges. In February 2013, he was charged with money laundering and abusing his official position to help engineer the appropriation by the authorities of the independent Imedi TV station from Joseph Kay, who had inherited it from his distant relative Badri Patarkatsishvili. The investigation into those cases is still ongoing.
Then on December 18, Ugulava was also charged with using 41.18 million laris ($28.2 million) in public funds to finance the ENM’s election campaign in a scheme similar to that imputed to Merabishvili. Three days later, on December 21, the Tbilisi Municipal Court suspended Ugulava from the post of Tbilisi mayor to which he had been appointed by Saakashvili in July 2005 and reelected in a popular ballot five years later.
Like Merabishvili, Ugulava dismissed the charges against him as politically motivated. He attributed his suspension as mayor to pressure exerted on the court by the government, and suggested Georgian Dream wants to remove him from the political scene in order to facilitate the election of its own candidate as Tbilisi mayor in the local elections due next summer.
Ugulava then sought to call into question Partskhaladze’s competence and integrity. He told journalists late on December 23 that the prosecutor-general had been sentenced by a German court in 2001 to 15 months in jail on charges of assault and robbery and stripped of the right to vote or hold public office should be suspended from his duties. Partskhaladze’s office formally rejected that allegation as untrue and aimed forcing his resignation and thus negatively affecting the investigation into unspecified high-profile cases.
Partskhaladze admitted in a written statement that he had appeared before a German court in 2000, but claimed that it was because of a “verbal altercation” with a police officer who mistook him for a robbery suspect. But what appears to be a statement from the Augsburg City Prosecutor’s office dated December 23 and circulated on social media confirms Ugulava’s allegation that Partskhaladze was sentenced for robbery and assault.
Several senior Georgian officials have spoken out in Partskhaladze’s support. Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili told the Maestro TV station late on December 26 that he, Gharibashvili and Tsulukiani are all satisfied that there are no grounds to demand Partskhaladze’s dismissal. He said the prime minister and Tsulukiani had no reason not to appoint Partskhaladze prosecutor last month. In an interview the following day, Gharibashvili confirmed that Partskhaladze had been convicted of a criminal offence and served out his term, but added that he considers the response to that revelation overblown.
Members of the cabinet too came to Partskhaladze’s defense. Foreign Minister Maya Pandjikidze likened Ugulava’s allegations to “a conspiracy." She questioned how a German court could bar anyone from voting or holding office in his home country. Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri expressed confidence that “whatever Ugulava may dream up,” Partskhaladze will bring to a successful conclusion the investigations and criminal proceedings currently under way. But Defense Minster Irakli Alasania argued that “credible answers” are needed to the questions raised about Partskhaladze’s past to prevent the government becoming the hostage of the ENM’s allegations and being forced to suspend the ongoing investigations.
A group of prominent NGOs has argued that Partskhaladze should step down if he was indeed convicted of burglary. Some commentators too think Partskhaladze should resign to avoid further discrediting the new cabinet.
In what could be construed as a veiled allusion to Gharibashvili’s lack of experience, Usupashvili admitted that the government “made a slight mistake by not providing promptly comprehensive answers backed by facts” as soon as the allegations against Partskhaladze surfaced. Whether the scandal will undermine public confidence in Gharibashvili remains to be seen. A poll conducted in November on behalf of the U.S. National Democratic Institute gave him a 79 percent approval rating.