Merabishvili’s Arrest and the Erosion of Rule of Law in Georgia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 99

Vano Merabishvili in court at a preliminary hearing, May 22

The Georgian government under Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is escalating the level of repression and threats against the pro-Western opposition United National Movement (UNM). The arrest of UNM’s leader Vano Merabishvili on May 21 caps a series of repressive measures, which Ivanishvili had earlier threatened to implement and is proceeding, step by step, to do so.

The administration in Washington bears its share of responsibility for these events (see below), but is responding hesitantly and belatedly, if at all. The Obama administration facilitated the regime change in Georgia in 2012, but it soon abdicated responsibility for the consequences of its policy. Lacking a strategy for Georgia and the South Caucasus region, and wishing to remove a geopolitical impediment to its Russia “reset,” the United States sought to ensure a decent-looking process of regime change in Georgia.

Washington defined the parameters of that process as an “orderly transfer of power” and “cohabitation” by the new government with the outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili, who will, as almost a foregone conclusion, be replaced by a nominee of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in October 2013.

By declaring orderly transition and temporary cohabitation as its goals and benchmarks, US policy characteristically focused on issues of process, scarcely considering the likely results and strategic implications of the regime change it favored. The strategic outcome of regime change in Georgia is a net loss to the West. But the Obama administration was not playing for that kind of stakes to begin with; indeed the administration abjures this very mode of analysis. Instead, it stipulated cohabitation and orderly transition as its objectives: minimalist in content, limited in time, and disconnected from all doubts about the new government’s capacity or willingness to identify with Western interests.

By its own criteria, Washington’s policy has failed at every juncture since October 2012. Ivanishvili’s team practices the politics of intimidation, rather than those of cohabitation; the transfer of power is anything but orderly, and in a broader sense the rule of law is being set back in many of its aspects.

The prime minister threatens periodically to have Saakashvili interrogated, or “expects Saakashvili’s arrest” (as he told Le Monde on April 21)—presumably after the expiry of the president’s term in October. Ivanishvili has from time to time described the UNM generally as “criminals” and “liars,” unfit for the role of an opposition party. Top law enforcement officials echo that rhetoric as a means of political pressure on the opposition.

More than 20 UNM officials were jailed on various charges shortly after the change of government, but most of them had to be released for lack of evidence. The government blamed the releases on judges appointed during the Saakashvili era, and announced plans to review or contest those judicial appointments.

Bypassing the judiciary system where it could, the parliamentary majority re-classified 190 common-law convicts as “political prisoners” and had them released by act of parliament en masse, without case-by-case court decisions. Several Russian military intelligence officers, convicted for espionage activities in Georgia, were also included in the “political prisoners” category and released. Among the common-law convicts redefined as political and released was Giorgi Gabedava, who became a key organizer of the May 17 anti-homosexual rally in Tbilisi (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/05/what-was-behind-georgias-anti-gay-rally.html).

Ivanishvili and his team escalate the pressure by accusing Saakashvili’s government of collusion with anti-Russian “terrorists,” and announcing criminal investigations into that also. Such inflammatory declarations impinge on the due process of justice, with the government’s top authorities undermining the presumption of innocence, or even pre-judging cases (see EDM, April 3, 16, 17, May 3).

Spearheading those investigations are Prosecutor General Archil Kbilashvili and Internal Affairs Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, two young officials who came to government in October 2012 directly from Ivanishvili’s private employ (as lawyer and bank manager, respectively). This does not inspire confidence in their impartiality as top law-enforcement officials, nor in the separation of justice from politics in the conduct of those investigations.

In the last few months, crowds of supporters of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party have forcibly evicted UNM authorities from town hall and district-level executive bodies across the country. Those authorities had been elected in the local elections, held country-wide in 2010 and assessed internationally as the fairest Georgian elections since independence. Elections to local ruling bodies are due in 2014; but government supporters throughout the countryside refused to distinguish between parliamentary and local election cycles. Instead, they rushed to reproduce at the local level the change of power at the central level. They did not bother to hold new local elections. They simply pushed their way in and installed Georgian Dream supporters in those offices. Western representatives in Georgia failed to react. They had carefully monitored the parliamentary elections, but ignored the forcible change of elected local administrations throughout the country.

The United States maintains an embarrassing public silence through all of this. Merabishvili’s arrest has forced Washington to respond somehow, but the response came from a low-level official, and painstakingly avoided using the words ‘’concern’’ and ‘’selective justice’’ (US State Department Daily Briefing, May 22). US policy is failing, and might be approaching the point of irreversible failure with the arrest of Georgia’s top opposition leader by Ivanishvili’s authorities.