In a few short years, Mikheil Saakashvili took a failing state and turned it into one of the fastest growing economies. Now, the country he rescued wants to put him behind bars, an act which could have a grave effect on Georgia’s relationship with the west.
Some months after Georgia’s October 2012 parliamentary elections, I was sitting at a conference table in a stuffy room in the State Chancellory with a few other journalists and advisors to the new Georgian Dream (GD) coalition government. The advisors were brainstorming ways to rescue the deteriorating image of the new government, after a series of high-profile arrests of former ruling party members had prompted many of Georgia’s western partners to accuse it of engaging in selective prosecution and backsliding on democracy. The group knew multi-billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili was targeting President Mikheil Saakashvili and that it would have been impossible to prove that busting the sitting president who is your political adversary is not an act of selective justice.
The decision to prosecute Saakashvili came a year later, on July 28, one week after Parliament ratified its Association Agreement with the European Union. With the Agreement in the bag, the GD majority feels it can make the case that they are merely ending the era of impunity and restoring the democratic principles of rule of law. Many of Georgia’s western partners, however, are unconvinced that the motivations are purely egalitarian and there is doubt that Georgia’s frail legal system can actually guarantee rule of law.
Saakashvili is being charged for “exceeding official authorities” in relation to the brutal crackdown of protesters on November 7, 2007 and the subsequent raid and seizure of Imedi TV station, owned by billionaire and political opponent, Badri Patarkatsiashvili. On August 13, the Prosecutor’s Office announced new charges will be brought against the former president for misspending $5.1 million. More charges no doubt await the man commonly known as “Misha,” of who George W. Bush once said “Because you acted, Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world.”
From Hero to Zero
Misha became a hero when he lead the peaceful “Rose Revolution” to topple the ineffective and corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003. At the age of 37, the charismatic western educated lawyer became Europe’s youngest president, garnering 96 percent of the vote in 2004. In his first year in office, he bloodlessly wrested control of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara from Aslan Abashidze, a miscreant “prince” who had run Adjara as his own fiefdom since 1991. But it was Misha’s audacious act of firing the entire police force, which had been the largest organized crime ring in the country, and replacing it with a young team of law enforcers that gained him international fame.
On the surface, the new Georgia was remarkable. In a few years, there were new roads, modern buildings and more foreign investment than the country had ever seen. The World Bank twice named Georgia the top reformer in the world. But the power of Misha’s one-party government became consolidated among a small group of men, who had difficulties discerning state interests from personal concerns. Transparency was anathema to their brand of democracy. The police that Misha so famously reformed were controlled by his right-hand man, Interior Minister Vano Merabashvili, while the courts were controlled by his left-hand man, Zurab Adieshvili. These guys believed they were the only people capable of leading Georgia forward, but they did not operate like democrats. They functioned like state-building gangsters.
Davit Kezerashvili, a co-producer of the Rose Revolution, became Minister of Defense when he was 28 years-old. Before that he perfected the technique of squeezing businesses as head of the tax police, which gained notoriety for storming restaurants with armed squads to perform audits. Kezerashvili entered the private sector after being politely dismissed from his post following the catastrophic war with Russia in 2008. Somehow, he managed to corner Georgia’s oil and advertising markets and by 2012 it was estimated the turnover of just one of his offshore companies, FPC, to be $795 million.
Anyone opposed to Misha faced visits from the tax police, prison time and in some cases murder, like banker Sandro Girgvliani, who was tortured to death by Interior Ministry officials for insulting a ministry bureaucrat in January 2006. The guilty men were sentenced to several years in prison but were soon pardoned by the President. For Georgians, Misha was clearly not the poster boy of liberty the west made him out to be. His coup de grâce was the leaked video tapes of systematic torture in the prison system, weeks before the 2012 parliamentary elections.
A Fugitive in The Making
Misha is somewhere in Europe and will not come to face trial from courts controlled by what he calls a “Russian Oligarch,” in reference to Ivanishvili, who stepped down last year yet is believed by many to still be pulling the strings from behind the scenes. To date, the former Interior Minister, Defense Minister and Mayor of Tbilisi are behind bars. Their party, the United National Movement and its 20 percent support base, believe the arrests are the only campaign promises the GD can deliver and are a smokescreen to the issues the government has failed to address; namely unemployment and the economy. Moreover, Misha’s arrest will be a gift from what they insist is a pro-Russian government to his arch-rival, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Most Georgians would like to see Misha locked up. They have little concern whether the courts operate independently or not, as long as he is punished. The Georgian justice system has no history of operating impartially. Misha could have reformed the judiciary, but he needed it to serve his ends. Only recently have some reforms strengthening court independence been instituted. It is unclear how freely and fairly the courts can function.
Since independence in 1991, Georgian politics have operated on a violent cycle of retribution. The first President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was overthrown less than a year after winning a landslide victory in a coup that would explode into civil war. When Eduard Shevardnadze resigned in 2003, Saakashvili promised he would not touch the former President, but he did round up his ministers and some family members. However, rather than imprison them, he gave them the option of paying much more than they were accused of misappropriating and put that money into the state budget. Shevardnadze’s son-in-law, Gia Dzhokhtaberidze, paid $15.5 million to the state budget for allegedly evading around $425,000 in taxes. Some fear the punitive cycle will continue and that the next government will lock up those GD officials considered criminals.
We Do It Our Way
The GD maintains that these high-profile arrests are in strict accordance to the law and they have invited international jurists and human rights experts to observe the process. In a letter to US Senators who warned the arrest of Saakashvili could harm US-Georgia relations, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili noted the contradiction of not investigating some crimes and ensuring the principles of rule of law and democracy. Some officials wonder why it’s okay for Italy to prosecute Silvio Berlusconi and wrong for Georgia to arrest Saakashvili, but they fail to understand how the West perceives crime. Berlusconi is a sex offender who did nothing to make Italy a better place, whereas Saakashvili may have ordered police to beat a few people and may have stole a little money, but he turned Georgia into one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Some analysts, like Lincoln Mitchell of Columbia University, argue that instead of condemning Georgia for charging the former President for crimes the west would do better to demand a fair, transparent trial. But the west is not going to do that. Others, like Tom De Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Anna Dolidze of the German Marshall Fund feel that the best way to diffuse the growing tensions the case against Saakashvili is generating is to “establish a commission that focuses both on egregious cases of injustice and on political reconciliation.” But Georgia is not going to do that. The Prosecutor General will gather more evidence and open more cases against Misha to demonstrate that in the new Georgia, nobody is above the law, even if the scales of justice are rusty. Or to quote a neighborhood taxi driver, “In Georgia, we do things our way.”
Originally published August 16, 2014 at Beacon Reader