Backstabbing, intrigue, and corruption continue to plague Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government, despite its repeated statements about centralizing power and eradicating corruption.
To the delight of Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, on March 27 the Prosecutor’s Office arrested Zurab Khutsishvili, deputy chief of logistics at the Defense Ministry, and Gia Kheloishvili, infrastructure inspector of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, on charges of misuse of power. According to Kakha Koberidze, deputy prosecutor-general, the charges involve the misappropriation of $13,000 from construction deals. Koberidze said that the ongoing investigation might implicate other defense officials.
The arrest of Defense Ministry officials has rekindled the earlier standoff between Okruashvili and his predecessor Giorgi Baramidze, now State Minister for European Integration Issues. On January 4, the newly appointed Okruashvili publicly charged Baramidze and his team in the Defense Ministry, including Khutsishvili, with embezzlement and negligence (see EDM, January 11). At the time, the row was widely perceived as a reflection of a larger, behind-the-scenes confrontation between the teams of Saakashvili and the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. Although Saakashvili managed to suppress the conflict temporarily, analysts predicted that the power struggles would persist.
The lull did not last long. On March 14, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was forced to publicly deny his disagreements with Okruashvili, in response to increased media speculation about their quarrel. The conflict between the ministers, which had been thoroughly suppressed until recently, came into view after the arrest of several top police officials from Shida Kartli region, known to be Okruashvili’s proteges, on smuggling charges. At a March 13 emergency meeting of the National Security Council following the arrests, Saakashvili furiously demanded that all police chiefs in the region be dismissed, and he pledged that corruption would not erode his government. Saakashvili instructed Merabishvili to restore order in the region, and the latter immediately filled the vacancies with his proteges.
Okruashvili, a native of Shida Kartli, served as governor there for a short time after the Rose Revolution and has fully staffed the region with his cadres. Analysts believe the ongoing reshuffle is likely to involve other Okruashvili favorites, including his closest confidant, governor Mikheil Kareli, and is an attempt by some forces to weaken the defense minister. The daily 24 Saati reported that two of the arrested police officers were hauled off to the Interior Ministry and forced to make false testimonials against Okruashvili’s people, accusing them of involvement in smuggling operations.
The riposte from Okruashvili, who reportedly controls several media outlets, including the popular television channel Rustavi-2, was equally sharp. On March 16 and 17 Bidzina Giorgobiani, a former chief of the Georgian Forestry Department, distributed a videotape to Georgian television outlets before fleeing to Germany. In his videotaped statement Giorgobiani accused Merabishvili and his underlings at the Security Department, which is a part of the Interior Ministry, of fabricating a criminal case against him after he had implicated security officials in illegal timber deals with South Ossetian separatists.
On March 23, the media widely reported the existence of telephone taps made public by Koba Davitashvili, an MP from the opposition Conservative Party. Davitashvili received the recordings, which exposed drug use and illegal deals among the Financial Police, from an Interior Ministry officer who decided to publicize the recordings after his chief had blocked the investigation despite having court approval for the taps. Some analysts tend to see Okruashvili behind this move, as it compromises the Ministry of Interior.
Symptomatically, despite frequent reports about Merabishvili’s involvement in the illegal deals, he has always managed to come out clean. Unlike Okruashvili, Merabishvili is known to be an official free of political ambition and fully loyal to Saakashvili.
These analysts suggest that Okruashvili has far-reaching political designs and serious influence on Saakashvili, who is rather afraid of him. According to some reports, it is actually Saakashvili who wants to crush Okruashvili for his increasing political ambitions and the president is using Merabishvili as a tool in this political game.
On March 29, Resonance published excerpts from a classified Interior Ministry document created by deputy minister Amiran Meskheli, a close relative of Interior Minister Merabishvili. The document instructs ministry employees and members of their families to inform Mr. Meskheli about all contacts with foreigners and even to tape any conversations with them. Georgian civic leaders have already denounced this document as an anti-constitutional move reminiscent of the Soviet NKVD. The Interior Ministry press office later confirmed the existence of the document in an interview with Resonance.
The tradition of “wars of compromises” so identified with the Shevardnadze era seemingly did not die during the Rose Revolution. Some analysts and civic leaders have launched an anti-Okruashvili campaign to convince Saakashvili to finally get rid of the loose cannon defense minister despite their long-term political partnership. Reportedly Okruashvili has twice submitted his resignation only to have Saakashvili refuse it. The president likely fears that Okruashvili, who according to the polls is Georgia’s third-most popular politician, will become more dangerous if he moves to the opposition camp.
Saakashvili’s attempt to build a strong single-party political system appears to have failed. The fissure in the eclectic ruling party is deepening, particularly after the death of Zhvania who was able to balance the interests somehow. Analysts say that the rift within Saakashvili’s entourage increases society’s skepticism towards the government. That likely explains why the Georgian media increasingly speculates about the next reshuffle in Saakashvili’s cabinet.
(Civil Georgia, March 14-27; Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, March 27; Resonance, March 18, 24, 26, 28, 29; Khvalindeli Dge, March 26; 24 Saati, March 28)