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

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