Georgian foreign minister: Saakashvili officials are ‘criminals and guilty'

The former officials being targeted for prosecution in Georgia following that country's recent transfer of power are "criminals and guilty" and have perpetrated crimes worse than Watergate, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said Friday in an exclusive interview with The Cable.

Panjikidze also said, in remarks certain to be controversial back home, that residents of the Russian-occupied territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, formerly part of Georgia, have a "choice" as to whether they want to be part of Georgia or part of Russia.

But it's her remarks about the recent wave of arrests in Tbilisi that may get her in hot water with Washington.

In the weeks since the Georgian Dream Party, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, won parliamentary elections, high-level U.S. and European officials have expressed concern that the prosecutions -- amounting thus far to 23 officials of the previous government for alleged crimes including corruption and torture -- are politically motivated.

"You can think it's political revenge. It's not. It's to restore the rule of law. It's not selective justice," Panjikidze said. "This is not political harassment. These are not political leaders. They are public servants and they have been involved in worse acts than Watergate in the United States."

Panjikidze insisted that the new Georgian government is not involved in the prosecutions or trying to influence the judicial process. But she is sure they are not innocent.

"Cohabitation [with the opposition] is very important, but it doesn't mean that we have to ignore that these people are criminals and guilty," she said. "There is no influence from the prime minister or from other members of the government... These people are simply criminals."

 "We have evidence that there is something wrong with these people," she said. "The signs that they are guilty are already there and the prosecutors' office already delivered evidence to that."

Those remarks will do little to reassure Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, prior to her Thursday meeting with Panjikidze, urged the new Georgian government to play by the rules.

"We do hope that everything that is done with respect to prosecuting any potential wrongdoers is done transparently in accord with due process and the rule of law as is befitting of the Georgia dream and the aspirations and sensitivities of the Georgian people," Clinton said.

State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland went a step further and urged the new Georgian government to ensure "that there not be even the appearance of any political motivation in prosecutions."

The Cable asked Panjikidze whether President Mikheil Saakashvili himself may face investigation and prosecution when he steps down from office at the end of next year.

"I don't know, I can't tell that to you because it's an independent body and I have nothing to do with it," she said.

Outside observers are skeptical of the new government's assertion that the prosecution of so many former officials so quickly after the elections is a coincidence, especially since the promise of such actions was part of the bitter campaign that brought the new government to power.

"The promise that officials would be punished helped propel the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili to victory in October parliamentary elections, dislodging the group of politicians who had controlled Georgia for nine years," the New York Times noted Friday.

For all the concern in Western capitals about the direction of Georgia's domestic politics, Panjikidze's message is that the new government is not going to change its foreign-policy priorities. The new Georgian government wants to pursue European Union and NATO membership as soon as possible, strengthen relations with the United States, and improve relations with its neighbors, she said. Georgia intended to keep its troops in Afghanistan past 2014 to assist with the training and advising of Afghan security forces.

The new Georgian government also wants to pursue dialogue with Russia, she said, but admitted that Russia refuses to begin that dialogue due to the Georgian government's position on Abkhasia and South Ossetia, which is that the territories must be returned immediately.

Panjikidze struggled to explain how the new Georgian government plans to achieve those objectives and break a stalemate that has lasted since August 2008, when Russian troops rolled across the border and wrested away control in a short, sharp war that lasted five days.

Georgia has to improve its own internal conditions to convince the people in Abkhasia and South Ossetia to decide to rejoin Georgia of their own accord, she said.

"The plan is to make the country as attractive as possible for Abkhasians and Ossetians and to give them the choice of what is better, to be inside Georgia or to be part of Russia," she said. "If we will be able to build the confidence between us and develop our country and show everybody inside and outside it's a democratic country, it will be attractive for everybody and they will see an opportunity for development and prosperity inside Georgia."

Ivanishvili pledged shortly after the election that his first overseas visit would be to the United States and he was expected to visit this month, but that visit has now been postponed for reasons that both parties declined to explain.

Panjikidze said Ivanishivili hopes to come to Washington next year. "He has a lot of things to do at home," she said.

This week, Ivanishivili accused the Washington Post editorial board of conspiring with Saakashvili and his Washington lobbyists to criticize the new Georgian government in commentary that harshly criticized the arrests of the former officials.

"The magnate-turned-prime minister said last week that his first official visit to the United States had been postponed, which is a good thing," the Post said in an editorial Friday. "As long as he is imprisoning opposition leaders and seeking to monopolize power, Georgia's new leader should not be welcome in Washington."

Reacting at a subsequent press conference in Tbilisi, Ivanishvili lashed out at the Post.

"It is amazing and I will find out how [Saakashvili] managed that such an editorial appeared [in the Washington Post]. Our president has had only one thing organized well. This is what he is currently engaged in. This is all he got. He does lobbying as much as he can. He has this system set well," he said.

Asked about Ivanishvili's own cadre of Washington lobbyists, which has included Patton Boggs and BGR Group, Panjikidze said "We don't have lobbyists." When confronted with the list of lobbyists on IvanshivilI's payroll, she said those lobbyists' contracts would not be continued.

"That was in the campaign. That is not now."

VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/GettyImages

The Cable

White House opposed new Iran sanctions

The White House announced its opposition to a new round of Iran sanctions that the Senate unanimously approved Friday, in the latest instance of Congress pushing for more aggressive punitive measures on Iran than the administration deems prudent.

On Thursday, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate passed 94-0. The new legislative language would blacklist Iran's energy, port, shipping, and shipbuilding sectors, while also placing new restrictions on Iran's ability to get insurance for all these industries. The legislation would also vastly expand U.S. support for human rights inside Iran and impose new sanctions on Iranians who divert humanitarian assistance from its intended purpose.

"The window is closing. The time for the waiting game is over," Menendez said on the Senate floor Thursday night. "Yes, our sanctions are having a demonstrable effect on the Iranian economy, but Iran is still working just as hard to develop nuclear weapons."

But the White House told several Senate offices Thursday evening that the administration was opposed to the amendment. National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor sent The Cable the administration's official position, explaining the White House's view the sanctions aren't needed and aren't helpful at this time.

"As we focus with our partners on effectively implementing these efforts, we believe additional authorities now threaten to undercut these efforts," he said. "We also have concerns with some of the formulations as currently drafted in the text and want to work through them with our congressional partners to make the law more effective and consistent with the current sanctions law to ensure we don't undercut our success to date."

An e-mail from the NSC's legislative affairs office to some Senate Democrats late Thursday evening, obtained by The Cable, went into extensive detail about the administration's concerns about the new sanctions legislation, including that it might get in the way of the administration's efforts to implement the last round of Iran sanctions, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (TRA), to which it flatly objected at the time.

"We do not believe additional authority to apply more sanctions on Iran is necessary at this time," read the e-mail, which the NSC legislative affairs office said represented the entire administration's view. "At the same time, we are concerned that this amendment is duplicative and threatens to confuse and undermine some of the TRA provisions."

One of the White House's chief concerns is that Congress is not providing the administration enough waivers, which would give the United States the option of negating or postponing applications of the sanctions on a case-by-case basis.

The White House also said that secondary sanctions should apply only to those Iranian persons and entities that are guilty of aiding Iran's nulear and missile programs. The new legislative language would designate entire categories of Iranian government entities to be sanctioned -- whether or not each person or entity is directly involved in such activities.

The new sanctions too broadly punish companies that supply materials, such as certain metals, that could be used in Iran's nuclear, military, or ballistic missile programs, the White House worries. The bill allows those materials to be sold to Iranian entities that intend to use them for non-military or nuclear-related purposes, but the administration said that the ambiguity in that part of the legislation will make it hard to implement.

Finally, the White House doesn't want to implement the part of the new legislation that would require reports to Congress on the thousands of boats that dock at Iranian ports and the dozens of Iranian planes that make stops at airports around the world. Those reporting requirements "will impose serious time burdens on the Intelligence Community and sanctions officers," the White House said in the e-mail.

The Obama administration often touts the Iran sanctions it once opposed. In the final presidential debate Oct. 22, President Barack Obama said his administration had "organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy."

The new Iran sanctions still must survive a House-Senate conference over the defense authorization bill, during which conferees may try to change certain portions of the new sanctions regime. Hill aides predict the White House will try to alter the new sanctions during that process, in what they would likely see as an effort to water them down.

"The truth is that the U.S. Congress continues to lead a comprehensive and unrelenting international sanctions program against the Iranian regime despite a comprehensive and unrelenting campaign by this administration to block or water down those sanctions at every move," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable. "We beat them 100-0 last year and while they tried to kill this amendment more quietly this time, we beat them again 94-0. Hopefully House and Senate negotiators will stay strong and resist the administration's strategy to dilute these sanctions in conference."