MOSCOW — Last night I got a call from friends in Georgia. They're worried about the political situation in their country. This seems to be happening a lot lately.
Last week the authorities in Tbilisi issued orders for the arrest of Vano Merabishvili, a former prime minister who more recently was serving as the head of President Mikheil Saakashvili's political party. (The officials behind the arrest answer to the government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the victor in last year's parliamentary election and a convinced opponent of the president.)
Merabishvili's detention is once again deepening the divide in Georgian society. Many Georgians are eager to see all former police and military officials, including President Saakashvili, behind bars. Others are just tired of political prosecutions and scandals. My friends sounded more frustrated than happy, and with good reason. Instead of reviving the economy and creating jobs as he promised, billionaire-turned-politician Ivanishvili now appears to be fixated on an unrelenting campaign of political revenge.
Just one year ago, Prime Minister Merabishvili was the second most influential man in the country: Saakhashvili described him as "the backbone" of Georgian politics. Merabishvili first became famous for cracking down on criminal bosses as minister of internal affairs in the years after the 2003 Rose revolution. He fired thousands of notoriously corrupt policemen and former KGB officers, built ministry buildings out of glass to symbolize transparency, and enshrined honesty as a guiding principle for the Georgian police. But none of those supporters who celebrated his reforms showed up on Tuesday, when the former reformer was ironically taken into custody on charges of embezzling public funds. Memory of Merabishvili's reforms faded as his ministry gradually slipped back into abusing executive power. Just before the 2007 presidential election, Saakashvili lost his temper with the opposition and commanded Merabishvili to deploy the security forces against protestors and impose censorship on state-controlled media. (Some critics claimed that the minister of internal affairs had ordered police to beat demonstrators "mainly in the kindneys and the stomach.") The Imedi TV station, which supported the opposition, was forced off the air after police stormed its buildings. Experts said that Saakashvili had committed political suicide. But it was Merabishvili who implemented the president's ideas.
But Saakashvili still struggled hard to prove his democratic credentials. Soon after the tumult of 2007 he announced a compromise, calling for early elections in January 2008. He won with 53.4 percent of votes, once again demonstrating his lasting popularity. A few months later, however, the newly elected president launched a war with South Ossetia and Russia; he later claimed that the conflict was unavoidable, blaming separatist Ossetians for killing too many Georgians along the border. As Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, people once again rallied around the president, the army, and the police. Merabishvili's ministry was yet again the most popular in the country, earning high ratings from the World Bank for its reforms.
Since assuming power as prime minister, Ivanishvili has taken to describing the war as "a huge provocation planned by Saakashvili and his military chiefs" (the latter a reference to none other than Merabishvili). In an interview I conducted with him three months ago, Ivanishvili accused both president Saakashvili and his ally Merabishvili of large-scale corruption and abuse of power. It was clear that arrests would soon follow. Immediately after last year's Ivanshvili election victory, hundreds of Saakashvili's supporters lost their jobs in the police and in other ministries.
Leaders in former Soviet countries are known for their vendettas against their political predecessors. Belarus' authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, expelled and imprisoned many opponents after he came to power in 1994. In Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych insisted during his 2010 campaign that his first priority, if he won, would be to integrate Ukraine into the European Union. Upon his election, however, he promptly set about jailing political opponents. These days Yanukovych spends much of his time explaining to Brussels why his government threw his main political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, into prison for seven years. (She finished a close second to Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election.) The Europeans see his decision to lock up Tymoshenko as an act of political vengeance. Yanukovych's move to jail her has undermined his promise to put Ukraine on a path to E.U. membership.