Georgia's president-elect is putting the country in strong danger of losing its hard won democracy.
When Georgian President Mikheil Saakasvhili conceded defeat in parliamentary elections last month, he set an admirable and important precedent. Never before in the Caucasus, and only rarely in the post-Soviet space as a whole, had a leader transferred power peacefully following a democratic election. Long derided as an authoritarian by his domestic opponents, the Kremlin, and cynical naysayers in the West, Saakashvili put his country before his political career when he made way for the Georgian Dream coalition of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili to assume control of parliament. But, as they say, no good deed ever goes unpunished, and it appears that Saakashvili's political adversaries are not holding up their end of the democratic bargain.
The problems started the day after the election, when the surprise victor Ivanishvili -- until recently a recluse who had made his fortune in Russia -- hosted a contentious press conference at his party headquarters. There he insisted that Saakashvili, whose presidential term does not expire until October 2013, resign immediately. When asked by a Bloomberg News correspondent whether his electoral triumph signaled the return of organized crime to Georgia, Ivanishvili snapped at her in a way more befitting a tin-pot tyrant than a democrat. The overall performance did not inspire confidence. It was that of a man used to getting his way, and for whom answering questions by pesky journalists is a tiresome nuisance, not an obligation. And though Ivanishvili later put aside his call for Saakashvili's resignation following an international outcry, he has sounded it again in recent weeks, emboldened by a series of politicized arrests.
Earlier this month, police detained a former Defense Minister from the Saakasvhili administration and the military's current chief of staff, only a day after the investigations into their alleged wrongdoing had been opened. Both men have been charged on spurious grounds of having "insulted verbally and physically" military personnel in 2011. In the weeks since, over 15 other individuals -- all of them either members of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), including Tbilisi's Deputy Mayor, or civil servants who worked for the Interior Ministry -- have been detained. Over the weekend, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that it has uncovered a case of abuse of power by former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, whom the Chief Prosecutor promised would be questioned without specifying a date. On a visit to Tbilisi Monday, European Union Foreign Policy and Security Chief Catherine Ashton offered a rote complaint about the fraught political situation: "There should be no selective justice, no retribution against political rivals." When Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary General of NATO (which Ivanishvili insists he wants Georgia to join), stated that he was "extremely concerned" about the arrest of a Georgian military officer, an Ivanishvili ally criticized the former Danish Prime Minister over his refusal to condemn cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed seven years ago.
Ivanishvili has tacitly threatened the opposition that their continued criticism of the new government will result in further arrests and that only by shutting up will the political witch hunt cease. "Once I told [President] Saakashvili that it would be easier for him to come out, say he feels sorry and resign. This is the key to everything that is happening now," Ivanishvili said last week. "But they are still presenting themselves as angels. They are lying to us. This will not reduce the probability of the arrests." According to sources around Saakashvili, Ivanishvili has long been privately threatening what he is only now saying publicly. Raphael Glucksmann, a Saakashvili advisor, says that, during their first meeting after the election, Ivanishvili told Saakashvili that, "he should resign or his aides would face juridical consequences."
As if jailing political opponents were not enough, the new government is simultaneously attempting to free individuals whom it has dubiously labeled "political prisoners," including those found guilty of involvement in acts of terrorism. On November 19, the Georgian Parliament's Human Rights Committee granted political prisoner status to over 180 individuals. Seven of them include Georgian citizens found guilty of acting as accomplices to a series of terrorist acts that transpired in the fall of 2010, ranging from a bomb attack near the American Embassy in Tbilisi to an explosion near a supermarket. According to the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, all of the attacks were orchestrated by a Russian intelligence officer stationed in Abkhazia, one of two breakaway territories inside Georgia. An additional seven names on the list are Russian citizens arrested in 2010 as part of a spy ring, 19 are members of a tank battalion that attempted to mutiny in 2009, and 24 were arrested during riots, also in 2009, orchestrated by Nino Burjanadze, the pro-Putin former speaker of the Georgian parliament.
What Ivanishvili cannot accomplish through political use of the police and judiciary, he can attempt via other means. Already, the Ivanishvili-controlled cabinet has cut funding for the maintenance of Saakashvili's presidential plane in 2013. Seven UNM MPs have defected to parties in the Georgian Dream coalition; the UNM says they were coerced into doing so. Ivanishvili's allies only need 13 more seats in order to achieve a constitutional majority of 101, something which Ivanishvili, with his unlimited cash, has the ability to influence should he choose. On top of this, Ivanishvili has launched an audit of the public broadcaster (praised by the European Union Monitoring Mission as the most objective news source in the country) which he has also said he wishes to merge with his own Channel 9, (technically owned by his wife) via the "donation" of the latter's television equipment and personnel. Meanwhile, the private Imedi Television, formerly owned by a mogul close to Saakashvili, has been acquired by a mogul close to Ivanishvili, and has ceased broadcasting news.
Ironically, Ivanishvili's political shenanigans have been partly enabled by one of the weak points of Saakashvili's legacy, namely his failure to adequately reform the country's justice system. One of the most pertinent criticisms of the Saakasvhili government has centered on the lack of judicial independence, a charge that some Saakashvili confidantes now reluctantly admit. "The judiciary was not independent enough for sure during the 10 years of our government," says presidential advisor Glucksmann. "Contrary to the reform of the police, we partly failed to reform the judiciary." Now that there's a new crowd running the country, the opportunists in the judicial system appear to have made an about face in their loyalty. While admitting these faults, however, Glucksmann insists that, while the UNM ran the country, "we had a fundamental rule: No leader of the opposition should be sent to jail, whatever crime he was suspected to have committed."
Turnover and transformation is to be expected in any political transition, but jailing one's political opponents on spurious charges would risk everything Georgia has overcome in the two decades since it won independence from the Soviet Union. That such a scenario has followed so swiftly after the October 1 elections, however, comes as little surprise. Many of Ivanishvili's supporters are members of the old guard -- former police officers sacked during Saakashvili's restructuring of the corrupt force, ossified bureaucrats from the Eduard Shevardnadze era -- who supported Ivanishvili not because of any specific policy changes he offered, but as a form of revenge against the man responsible for their downsizing. Add to this Ivanishvili's authoritarian personality, his ties to Russia, the crudely nationalistic and xenophobic makeup of his coalition, and you have a recipe for retribution, and worse.
Georgia has enough problems on its hands -- high poverty and unemployment being the two biggest -- that the last thing it needs is a political witch hunt. Fortunately, the pro-Western desires of most Georgians should be enough to prevent a full reversion back to Soviet or post-Soviet levels of repression, the sort of setback that would shutter Georgia's Western integration. 71 percent of Georgians, according to a 2011 survey by the Caucuses Research Resource Center, said that the country should be closest diplomatically to the United States. In a speech last week, Saakashvili told his people that, "You wanted, we all wanted to bring back Georgia to the European family of free and prosperous nations it should never have been separated from." The coming months will test whether Georgia's young democracy is strong enough that no amount of political shenanigans can undo it.
Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images