Weeks after elections in Georgia brought billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition to power, the arrests of numerous senior officials from the former regime of President Mikheil Saakashvili have unleashed a wave of concern and criticism in the West. But the critics' quickness to pile on the new government glosses over the serious abuses perpetrated by the previous government and fails to give due process a chance.
Since the arrest in early November of Georgia's former defense and interior minister, Bacho Akhalaia, and a string of other ex-officials, a rash of articles and op-eds have appeared in the Western press warning against the specter of political vengeance from the Georgian Dream, which now holds a majority in parliament. Unsurprisingly, neither media clamor nor stern words from Western leaders have done much to stem the tide of arrests, and now it's been announced that former longtime Interior Minister (and briefly Prime Minister) Vano Merabishvili has also been brought in for questioning. For most observers, the optics of a campaign of arrests do not bode well for a new political movement aggressively (and likely unfairly) branded as Russian proxies by the ruling-turned-opposition United National Movement.
But for all the public dismay and expressions of concern, there has been a surprising lack of due diligence about who's being arrested and why. While the lion's share of English-language coverage has cast the situation as a politically motivated purge against a besieged pro-West administration, the reality is actually far more complex. Upon examination, the UNM's own record does much to dispel the notion of Akhalaia, Merabishvili, and their ilk as unfairly accused, embattled democrats.
It is rarely mentioned now, but the much-feared Akhalaia and Merabishvili were responsible for creating an extensive -- and very likely illegal -- surveillance and security apparatus in Georgia, thus substantially contributing to the same climate of state impunity that helped propel Georgian Dream to a surprise victory in the October 1 elections. Akhalaia, a close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili and onetime head of the country's penitentiary system, resigned as interior minister after disturbing images of systemic abuse in Georgia's swollen prison system were leaked. Though Akhalaia served as interior minister when the scandal emerged, civil society groups and protesters alike demanded his resignation for his role as de facto prisons boss. After initial resistance, he complied. (Actual prisons minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, widely perceived as having little real power, also resigned.)
On cue, the interior ministry responded to the scandal by releasing its own set of conveniently available recordings and arresting opposition members. This continued a longstanding and curious Interior Ministry tradition of releasing damning audio or video evidence for seemingly every contingency. That Akhalaia's own downfall was precipitated by leaked videos contained more than a little irony.
Merabishvili, easily the longest-serving member of Saakashvili's cabinet, was an all-powerful interior minister. He has been alternately credited with spearheading the country's successful police reforms as well as presiding over a host of abuses of power. Aside from bearing responsibility for the climate of fear engendered by this ubiquitous national security state, Merabishvili -- as well as Akhalaia's brother Data -- has been implicated in the controversial death of 28 year-old Sandro Girgvliani at the hands of senior Interior Ministry officials following a reportedly tense exchange involving Merabishvili's wife in a Tbilisi café in 2006. The case, which came to symbolize a culture of official impunity and a pliant judiciary, ended with the jailing of a few interior ministry officials, leaving Merabishvili's role mostly ignored. Echoing this sentiment, a 2011 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights agreed that the case was insufficiently and deliberately ill-investigated. Even more ominously, a United Nations probe has also linked Merabishvili's interior ministry with a 2008 attack on two buses carrying ethnic Georgian residents from the breakaway Abkhazia region, which Tbilisi had originally blamed on separatist forces.