By Eka Janashia (19/08/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On August 7, Tbilisi City court froze the assets of Georgia’s leading media company – Rustavi 2 TV – based on a the lawsuit of businessman Kibar Khalvashi claiming that the formerly ruling United National Movement (UNM) party forced him to give up his share in the company in 2006.

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Published in Field Reports

By Eka Janashia (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In May, Georgia’s main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), lost four prominent members. Since the 2012 parliamentary elections, over a dozen UNM members have broken ranks but this was the first time long-standing and high-profile associates quit the party.

Zurab Japaridze, Pavle Kublashvili, Goga Khachidze and Giorgi Meladze decided “to establish a new, open political center, to attract and engage political process professionals,” in order to counter pro-Russian forces aspiring to win a majority in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Private consultations with individuals are ongoing and the prospect of cooperation with other political groups is not yet certain, Japaridze said.

According to the former UNM members, the UNM was the only political force capable of challenging oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s “puppet government.” The party peacefully handed over power to the victorious political force after the 2012 parliamentary elections and even survived despite significant pressure from the new government. However, UNM failed to renew itself in order to regain the confidence of the Georgian public. According to a joint statement by the former UNM members, the “Complete renewal and openness of a political force is required for achieving a victory,” implying that the affiliation with former President Mikheil Saakashvili is a major drawback for UNM. In 2013, Saakashvili was re-elected chairman of UNM, apparently putting the party’s ability to renew itself into question.

The four insisted then that they preferred to stay with the party as they felt obliged to contribute to its unity and survival. However, as parliamentary elections are approaching, they now endeavor to “reshape the political spectrum” in order to defeat the “oligarchic rule.” 

UNM lawmakers termed the decision an “absolutely irresponsible” move, made at the most decisive moment, and suggested that it was a consequence of the enormous pressure from Georgian authorities. While UNM claims that the party “stands firm” and additional defections from within its ranks is not expected, PM Irakli Gharibashvili asserted that UNM is in a process of disintegration.

Most political analysts say that a new re-grouping among the pro-western parties should be considered normal, given the large number of undecided voters. According to a public opinion survey, conducted throughout Georgia in April by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), 27 percent of the respondents were undecided on which political party they would vote for if parliamentary elections were held tomorrow; 6 percent did not intend to vote at all and 12 percent declined to answer. Several political actors are now repositioning to target hesitant voters, who now compose 45 percent of the electorate.

For example, the recently established social movement Iveria, co-founded by former foreign minister and Saakashvili associate Grigol Vashadze, plans to unite people of different professions and to establish the structure for a political party by the fall. It is composed of former high-ranking officials who occupied different posts during UNM’s term in power but were never actual members of the party.

Meanwhile, the Free Democrats, once a part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, did not exclude cooperation neither with the four former UNM lawmakers, nor with Iveria. The re-composition of pro-western political forces could well be a tactical maneuver aiming to introduce a new political coalition detached from Saakashvili’s leadership.

Nevertheless, it is not clear to what extent the moves of these former Saakashvili confidantes will convince potential voters. Japaridze might be an exception in this regard, as he joined the UNM after the recent parliamentary elections and then became the party’s executive secretary in September 2014. In contrast, the remaining three have long been prominent UNM members and Saakashvili allies. Kublashvili was chairman of the parliamentary committee on legal affairs in the previous parliament, while Khachidze was Minister of Environment Protection and Natural Resources in Saakashvili’s government. The same can be said for high-profile officials now converging around the social movement Iveria.

However, rumors about the UNM’s disintegration and its disappearance from the political scene are likely exaggerated. The UNM is a party with great managerial skills and has shown an ability to deal with the challenges it has faced over the last few years. From the Rose Revolution in 2003 to its current role as an opposition party, the UNM has managed to keep a reasonable degree of unity. Despite the vast public discontent in 2007 and the war with Russia in 2008 and its painful implications, the UNM preserved the legitimacy to run the country. After handing over power to the winning coalition, the party was subjected to intensive pressure. Former Prime Minister and UNM Secretary General Vano Merabishvili, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, as well as former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava were arrested and sentenced while pre-trial detention in absentia has been ordered for Saakashvili. Despite these setbacks, the UNM has yet to fall apart.

Given its high disapproval rating, the party has focused on international issues with a focus on Ukraine, and has sent several officials and experts to advise the Ukrainian government. On May 30, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed Saakashvili chairman of the state administration (governor) of Ukraine’s Odessa province.

Apparently, the UNM expects to contribute to Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Russian orbit, in turn helping Georgia to sustain its Euro-Atlantic path, and by extension to regain public confidence in the UNM at home. According to Saakashvili, “If Odessa ever falls, God forbid, then Georgia might be wiped out from the map.” 

Published in Field Reports

By Eka Janashia (08/14/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The summer of 2014 was replete with striking political events in Georgia. The country held local elections on June 15 - July 12 with a landslide victory for Georgian Dream (GD) and signed a historical Association Agreement (AA) with the EU on June 27. Shortly after the polls, PM Irakli Gharibashvili reshuffled his cabinet to deliver “all of the promises pledged by GD” with double “energy, motivation and efficiency.” However, an event that received considerable attention both at home and internationally was the Tbilisi City Court’s August 2 order to place former president Mikheil Saakashvili in pre-trial detention.

On July 28, Georgian prosecutor’s office filed charges against Saakashvili related to the anti-government protests erupting on November 7, 2007, and the subsequent police raid on Imedi TV resulting in tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili’s loss of the TV station and other assets.

The prosecutor’s motion accused Saakashvili and then former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who is currently in jail, for deliberate use of excessive force aiming to intimidate protesters and prevent further rallies. The deployment of army units in central Tbilisi during the dispersal of the protest was also considered a violation of the law. On August 2, in compliance with the prosecutor’s claims, Tbilisi City Court ordered Saakashvili’s pre-trail detention in absentia.

Three days later, new criminal charges were filed in connection with an attack conducted in 2005 against then opposition MP Valeri Gelashvili, a businessman and a member of the Republican Party. Gelashvili was severely beaten up by masked, armed men shortly after an interview in which Gelashvili insulted the former president’s family and accused Saakashvili of confiscating his property. “Motivated by personal revenge,” Saakashvili commanded then Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to beat Gelashvili. As he refused to do so, Saakashvili handed over the task to Merabishvili who complied, the prosecutor’s motion claims.

The indictments against Saakashvili and Merabishvili were filed under part three of article 333 of the criminal code, which deals with excessive use of official powers committed by use of violence and insult of the victim’s dignity and envisages imprisonment from 5 to 8 years.

Saakashvili’s defense lawyer, Otar Kakhidze, termed the evidence presented by the prosecutors insufficient and as fabrications ultimately drawing on a witness testimony of then parliamentary chairperson Nino Burjanadze. Kakhidze submitted an appeal to the Tbilisi Court of Appeals in an attempt to reverse the court’s decision, though the latter found the complaint inadmissible.

In a statement published on August 1, a group of five NGOs called on the Georgian authorities to maintain transparency and accountability to avoid public and international perceptions of political retribution. The statement expressed suspicion over the fact that the criminal charges against Saakashvili were filed instantly after the latter failed to appear for questioning, casting doubts on the actual need to summon Saakashvili as a witness.

The decision on Saakashvili’s pre-trial detention drew criticism from the EU as well as the U.S. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said that “Georgian authorities deviate from the European path by using the justice system for revenge.” In the same fashion, the European People’s Party (EPP), a partner of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), stated that politically motivated actions pursued by the Georgian government means that it does not take the AA seriously. It was Saakashvili’s ongoing activities in Ukraine that incited charges against him, EPP said.

The U.S. Department of State and U.S. Senators also expressed concern and disappointment over the issue. A joint statement released by Republican Senators John McCain and Jim Risch says that perceptibly the ruling GD coalition systematically punishes their political opponents, imposing “unnecessary challenges in moving our relationship forward.”

The GD members and high-ranking government officials have dismissed Western criticism. MP Giorgi Volski disapproved the EPP statement assessing it as “factually incorrect and prejudicial.” PM Garibashvili called Bildt a representative of the “club of Saakashvili’s friends, who have certain obligations of friendship” and assured the public that Saakashvili’s case would have no effect on Georgia’s European integration process. The Swedish Foreign Minister was quick in responding that “if the Georgian PM does not want to listen to the best friends of his country in EU, that’s his choice. We take note.”

What became clear after Saakashvili’ indictment is that from the standpoint of the EU and U.S., the ruling coalition may have crossed a red line. Since GD came to power, EU and U.S. officials have repeatedly indicated that the coalition should move beyond past confrontations and focus on the future.

The episode is yet another indication that GD tends to prioritize narrow political interests over strategic national ones.

Published in Field Reports

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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