Speaking at a press conference on November 22, Ivanishvili sought to rebut accusations that the new regime is engaging in political persecution of the opposition ENM. The following day, President Mikheil Saakashvili (who fired the opening salvo in that war with his speech conceding the ENM’s defeat in the October 1 parliamentary elections by Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition), alleged that “a sense of serious instability” has emerged and that “more and more people in Georgia realize that our country is in danger.”
The catalyst for the allegations of systematic political persecution of senior members of the outgoing leadership was the arrests earlier this month of a dozen Interior Ministry officials and top military officers, including Bacho Akhalaia, who had served under Saakashvili first as defense minister, then as interior minister.
Those arrests have elicited statements of concern from NATO, Washington, and the European Union. Visiting Tbilisi two weeks ago, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon warned Ivanishvili of the need to avoid creating the impression that the ongoing investigation of suspected abuses selectively and unfairly targets Ivanishvili’s political opponents.
Ivanishvili assured Gordon that the new cabinet will make every effort to demonstrate to its Western partners that it is acting in strict compliance with the requirements of democracy and justice.
Echoing Gordon, EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton told a press conference in Tbilisi on November 27 that “there should be no selective justice, no retribution against political rivals. Investigations into past wrongdoings must be -- and must be seen to be -- impartial, transparent, and in compliance with due process.”
At his November 22 press conference, Ivanishvili dismissed as lies the ENM’s argument that the high-profile arrests constitute political persecution. He said Georgian Dream embarked on fulfilling its election campaign promises by seeking to restore justice and that “people are queuing up outside the prosecutor’s office to file complaints” against members of Saakashvili’s administration. He said he does not “dictate to the prosecutor-general whom he should arrest.” To argue that Akhalaia is a political prisoner, Ivanishvili added, is “an insult to society.”
Ivanishvili also made clear that he will not seek to initiate Saakashvili’s impeachment, although he will try to push through parliament amendments to the constitution that would curb presidential powers even before the election of Saakashvili’s successor. In that context, Ivanishvili questioned the rationale for the decision that Saakashvili should remain president until October 2013, even though he was reelected in January 2008 for a second five-year term.
As for his own political plans, Ivanishvili distanced himself from his preelection pledge that he would quit politics in the spring of 2014. He said he will do so “if things go perfectly” but that if “the worst-case scenario plays out” he will serve for the full parliamentary term and run again in the parliamentary elections due in 2017.
Ivanishvili’s rejection of the accusations of politically motivated reprisals against the ENM failed to convince Saakashvili and his closest political allies. National Security Council Secretary Gigi Bokeria retaliated the same day, describing Ivanishvili’s comments as a reflection of Georgian Dream’s intolerance of any opposition and as “an alarm signal for our democracy.” Bokeria accused Ivanishvili of being reluctant to comply even with “the minimum red lines of democracy.”
Vano Merabishvili, who served for years as interior minister before being named prime minister in late June, slammed Ivanishvili’s remarks as “blackmail” and warned him to “modify his rhetoric.” Like Saakashvili, Merabishvili alleged that Georgian Dream has no intention of delivering on its preelection promises.
The Georgian Interior Ministry has since completed its investigation into possible abuses by Merabishvili of his powers as interior minister. But Merabishvili has laughed off as “unserious” the possibility he may be arrested, affirming his readiness “to stand accountable and to answer all questions” of interest to the judiciary and the public at large.
Regardless of whether or not any legal justification exists for the arrests of Akhalaia and his associates and the criminal investigation into Merabishvili’s actions as interior minister, Saakashvili’s argument that such allegations contribute to tension and social malaise is a valid one. Accusations of politically motivated reprisals against political opponents, i.e. conflating the moral imperative to investigate and punish suspected crimes with a desire for revenge, constitute one of the easiest and most convenient ways to try to discredit a political rival. They are also among the most damaging in the long term insofar as questioning the motive for any such legal proceedings places on the political force that initiates them the onus of proving that it acted in good faith.
Disproving such accusations is difficult, given that each side is likely to dismiss the arguments adduced by the other as at best subjective and at worst specious and self-serving. Even if criminal charges brought against members of the outgoing regime were well-grounded and the evidence presented in court to substantiate them were, indeed, incontrovertible, a verdict of “guilty” can always be construed as evidence that the prosecutor’s office and the judiciary were simply taking orders, or caved in to pressure, from the executive branch.
As a trained lawyer, Saakashvili is well-qualified to wrest whatever political advantage he can from the ambiguities of the present situation.