By Eka Janashia (04/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On March 22, Georgia’s prosecutor’s office announced its intention to summon Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili for questioning as a witness in multiple criminal cases. Saakashvili should have appeared before prosecutors on March 27 but he refused to comply with the agency’s demand and even declined its later offer to question him via Skype.
Cases where the former president is wanted for questioning include, among others, the death in 2005 of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania; the halved prison terms through presidential pardon in November, 2008, of four convicts sentenced for the 2006 Sandro Girgvliani murder; the previous government’s attempts to put Cartu Bank, founded by former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, in bankruptcy in late 2011 and early 2012; the police raid on Tbilisi-based Imedi TV station in November, 2007; and the alleged misspending of GEL 8.83 million from the Special State Protection Service (SSPS) funds between 2009 and 2012.
On March 17, in an interview aired at Imedi TV, Ivanishvili said that he has been disappointed by President Giorgi Margvelashvili and no longer maintains “informal relations” with him. “[Margvelashvili] has shown principally different features and character after the [presidential] election,” he said and disclosed various differences between them. Margvelashvili’s decision to start using the glass-dome presidential palace constructed during Saakashvili’s presidency was one of the reasons for the rift between the old friends. According to Ivanishvili, Margvelashvili had previously insisted that the palace is a symbol of “violence, evil and indecency,” but then changed his mind and started holding official meetings there.
The former PM’s statements gave rise to speculations about a possible split within the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition. On the next day, however, public attention was instead directed to a YouTube video titled “Saakashvili killed Mr. Zurab Zhvania.” The footage uploaded by an anonymous user allegedly depicts a number of injuries on the bodies of Zhvania and Raul Usupov, a person who died together with the ex-PM (see the October 10, 2013 issue of the CACI Analyst).
The opposition United National Movement (UNM) claims that the video was published by the government itself to curtail its own incapacity and signs of internal divisions. It argues that the law enforcers already has all the materials necessary to conclude the investigation but it is lucrative for GD to raise new questions from time to time. To end long-lasting speculations over the case, the government should publish all materials regarding Zhvania’s death, UNM insists.
Zhvania’s return to the spotlight was shortly replaced by the news that Saakashvili was summoned for interrogation. The international reaction was quick. The U.S. Department of State stated, “no one is above the law, but launching multiple simultaneous investigations involving a former president raises legitimate concerns about political retribution, particularly when legal and judicial institutions are still fragile.” Štefan Füle, EU Commissioner for Enlargement and the European Neighborhood, also expressed concern over Saakashvili’s subpoena. “No one is above law but European practice [and] standards must be followed scrupulously,” he wrote.
Several civil society groups - International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED); Transparency International Georgia; and Georgian Democracy Initiative and Civil Development Agency (CIDA) – issued a joint statement saying that some circumstances related to the summoning of Saakashvili may damage the investigation’s objectivity and pleaded to the authorities not to trigger suspicions that the process is politically motivated.
In an interview with Rustavi 2 TV, Saakashvili termed his summoning by the Prosecutor’s office part of an “Ivanishvili-Putin game” and unveiled details regarding his departure from Georgia.
“According to senior U.S. and EU officials, there was a direct order from Putin to arrest me”, Saakashvili said. During a visit to Brussels in November 2013, Saakashvili said he was told by the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, that his arrest would undermine Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and that he should leave the country in order to save Georgia’s Western path. While he considers his recent vocal support for Ukraine to imply a risk of moves against him by the Kremlin, he’s not going to make “Putin’s dreams come true,” Saakashvili said.
When Saakashvili did not appear before the prosecutor’s office on March 27, the agency announced that it would offer the ex-president to answer questions via Skype with no need to travel to Tbilisi.
After speaking with Saakashvili over the phone, his ally in the UNM and former mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, said the former president is ready to testify as a witness via video link only before the court but not before the prosecutors alone. Such an interrogation will take place if any of the cases that the prosecutor’s office is investigating goes to trial, Ugulava said.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili termed Saakashvili’s refusal to comply a step of man afraid to answer tough questions. In response, UNM insisted that the Prosecutor’s office is still informally run by the former chief prosecutor with criminal record, Otar Partskhaladze, which undermines the agency’s credibility.
It is becoming clear that the U.S. government’s recent advice for the Georgian government “to leave the past in the past,” has not been observed (see the 03/05/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst). However, more alarmingly, the ongoing tensions may pose an obstacle to concluding Georgia’s Association Agreement with the EU.