The Tbilisi municipal court has sentenced the former mayor of the city and one of the leaders of the opposition party United National Movement (UNM), Gigi Ugulava, to four and a half years in prison for the misspending of public funds (Civil Georgia, September 18). The Prosecutor General’s Office stated that Ugulava had used his official position to hire UNM party activists to the city administration and then “illegally financed political activities during the 2012 election campaign from the city budget” (Interpressnews.ge, March 10, 2014).
Neither Ugulava nor his party have ever admitted to this wrongdoing, instead asserting that the ruling Georgian Dream coalition was “illegally and limitlessly financed by the Russian [sic] billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili with money received from [Russian President Vladimir Putin],” according to UNM parliamentarian David Darchiashvili (Author’s interview, July 13).
Apart from the employment of UNM party activists, the 40-year-old Ugulava is accused of the misappropriation of the TV company Imedi, which belonged to the deceased Badri Patarkatsishvili. Moreover, Ugulava is accused of engaging in urban real estate speculation and in illegally bestowing preferential treatment on the company City-Park, which had regulated parking services in the Georgian capital (Kommersant, July 6).
Ugulava may receive up to 35 years in prison for these aggregate charges (Kommersant, July 6). For now, the court has reduced his initial nine-year sentence down to four years and six months because the parliament passed an amnesty in December 2012 pertaining to the crimes attributed to the former mayor (Civil Georgia, September 18).
Had the court not sentenced Gigi Ugulava to a shortened prison term on September 18, he may have walked free for the time being. Ugulava’s maximum nine-month pretrial detention had run out long ago, since he was put under arrest in July 2014. Furthermore, on September 17, the Constitutional Court of Georgia ruled illegal the piece of legislation that allowed the prosecution and courts to prolong pretrial detention indefinitely if several different charges were brought against a defendant—as had, until now, been the case with Ugulava (Civil Georgia, September 17).
According to the influential constitutional lawmaker Avtandil Demetrashvi, the above-mentioned law, passed in 2007, allowed authorities to “add up” several nine-month pretrial detentions, but it was entirely unconstitutional. Demetrashvili, one of the authors of the Georgian constitution and a former chairman of the Constitutional Court, noted, “In many democratic countries, including the United States, court trials may last for years. When my colleagues and I wrote the 18th Article of the Constitution, in 1995, I based it on the European legal norm that clearly limits pretrial detention to nine months, after which the detained person must be released and the investigation continued until the court hearing” (Author’s interview, September 18).
The time gap between the verdict of the Constitutional Court on abolishing consecutive pre-trial detentions and the municipal court’s decision to formally convict Ugulava, amounted to only 24 hours. However, during this interim, hundreds of the former mayor’s supporters and parliamentary deputies greeted him with a standing ovation before the court building. Ugulava delivered an inspirational speech, in which he hinted at his intention to take part in the 2016 parliamentary elections under any circumstances. Ugulava, one of the leaders of the United National Movement, added: “Elections are coming. We will win early elections, if there are early elections; we will win the elections, if they are in October 2016 [as scheduled]. We will win anyway, even if they do not change the electoral system. Their [the ruling Georgian Dream coalition’s] defeat is inevitable. Our victory and the victory of all the pro-European forces are inevitable” (Civil Georgia, September 17).
Ugulava noted, referring to the previous Georgian Dream prime minister: “Ivanishvili does not care about anything except retaining his power. We will participate in the elections; it is important to approach the elections calmly and peacefully and we will see this man [Ivanishvili] off and we will put an end to the nightmare he brought upon the country… I hold no grudge against him, because I do not want to be like Ivanishvili, who is driven only by vengeance.” Apparently realizing he would soon be put back in detention, he said, “The goal [of the trial] is not to determine the truth; the goal is to jail me” (Civil Georgia, September 17).
The ruling coalition’s lawmakers reject claims that they put pressure on the court. “We did everything possible to make the judicial system in Georgia independent and to enable courts to base their acts on the law, not on political expediency,” the chairman of the parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security, Irakly Sesiashvili, explained (Author’s interview, September 17).
Ugulava used his 24 hours of freedom to improve his leadership position within the UNM. One of the former officials who had been sentenced to 9.5 years in prison “for abuse of power,” former interior minister Vano Merabishvili, fully supported Ugulava (Kommersant, February 27). Merabishvili is a co-defendant on some of the charges leveled against the former Tbilisi mayor.
An analyst with the GHN news agency, David Avalishvili, told this author: “Former president Mikheil Saakashvili has become the governor of Odesa and a Ukrainian citizen, so he is unlikely to participate in the future elections, while Gigi Ugulava is charismatic enough to become the leader of the opposition” (Author’s interview, September 19).
How can a prison inmate take part in the elections? Possibly, Ugulava expects to be released from prison soon because the West is putting significant pressure on the ruling Georgian Dream coalition and the government of Irakli Garibashvili for imprisoning members of the opposition (Kommersant, March 15). Given the Western pressure, even the leaders of Georgian Dream are lookign for ways to release their political opponents from detention, despite having earlier brought serious charges against them. For example, soon after Ugulava was put back in prison, the deputy speaker of the parliament, Manana Kobakhidze, hinted that he might be pardoned by the president of the country (Tabula, September 19).
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has the right to pardon prison inmates, but it is unclear if he will use this power to make the level somewhat the political situation just ahead of the elections. If Margvelashvili pardons Georgian Dream’s political opponents, those in the West opposing Georgia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), would presumably lose one of their key excuses for continuing to object to Georgian membership.
It is possible that this thinking may be shaping the new consensus in the ruling coalition, which could result in pardoning Gigi Ugulava and Vano Merabishvili by the president of Georgia in the run up to NATO’s 2016 summit in Warsaw.