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.