At Home and Abroad, Mixed Signals from New Georgian Government

Georgia’s new Prime Minister, billionaire business magnate Bidzina Ivanishvili, made his first trip abroad since his Georgian Dream coalition swept to power in elections last month.  Ivanishvili traveled to Brussels for consultations with leaders of NATO at the organization’s parliamentary assembly.  Western leaders hailed the trip as a signal that relations with the West would continue to be a priority for the new government in Georgia, easing concerns that Ivanishvili – who has expressed his desire to rekindle relations with Russia – would instead look toward Moscow for guidance.

Georgia’s new Foreign Minister, Maia Panjikidze, told reporters last month that Tbilisi would not pursue normalization of ties with Russia until the long-simmering conflict over the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was settled.  The two countries fought a short war over the territories in 2008, and Russia maintains troops in the provinces in defiance of an internationally brokered treaty to end the conflict.  Panjikidze underscored Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory in declaring her government’s intention to resolve the dispute before seeking further diplomatic relations.

“Twenty percent of Georgian territory is occupied by Russia, and Russia is the country that is occupying Georgia,” Panjikidze said. “[Moscow] opened two embassies in [the provinces], and as long as what I have said remains a fact, diplomatic relations with Russia will not be restored.”

As much as Ivanishvili’s stand on Russia has reassured Western capitals, however, his government’s actions at home have cast a shadow over his first European outing.  Outgoing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was in Brussels, too, and found a sympathetic figure in NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.  Reacting to a spate of arrests of former government ministers, Rasmussen said he was “extremely concerned” about events in Georgia and warned Ivanishvili to resist temptations toward political score settling.

“I am extremely concerned about the development we have seen, not least related to recent arrests of political opponents in Georgia,” Rasmussen said.  “It’s for the legal system, the judicial system in Georgia, to sort out these cases but it is important that such trials are not undermined by political interference.  [NATO] will of course follow that development very, very closely.”

In recent days, police have arrested Georgia’s former defense minister and former chief of the military general staff on unofficial charges of abuse of office stemming from allegations by former ministry officials and soldiers in the Georgian Army’s 4th Infantry Brigade of mistreatment and “insulting” behavior toward them.  A lawyer for the defendants called the charges “politically motivated and obviously absurd.”

Ivanishvili’s new justice minister has also vowed to re-open an investigation into the death of former prime minister Zurab Zhvania.  Zhvania and another man were found dead in 2006 in an apartment leased to one of Zhvania’s bodyguards.  Zhvania’s death was officially ruled an accidental case of carbon monoxide asphyxiation, but questions raised by the victim’s brother about the circumstances under which the bodies were found have stoked conspiracy theories alleging Saakashvili’s involvement in the prime minister’s death.  Re-opening the investigation seems aimed at further discrediting Saakashvili in the hope of forcing him to step down ahead of next year’s presidential election.

It is no secret that Georgia’s president and prime minister are bitter political rivals.  Saakashvili has called the Georgian Dream coalition’s program “unacceptable” and Ivanishvili has barred any members of Saakashvili’s United National Movement from serving in his government.  Both have set their parties on a path to personal and political destruction that will ultimately benefit neither, not to mention the Georgian people they were elected to serve.

As Prime Minister, it is Ivanishvili’s right to implement his agenda, but it is equally his responsibility to ensure the rights of the minority in the best interests of the people.  If his government’s statements with respect to Russia are genuine, Ivanishvili has made a wise choice.  Georgia’s future prosperity can only be secured by strengthening ties with the West.  However, his disturbing impulse to wage old battles at home could undermine the legitimate progress Georgia has made in the eyes of Western capitals under Saakashvili, delaying Tbilisi’s full integration into Europe.

If Georgia’s new leaders truly recognize the threat from Moscow – even from within its own borders – they will move quickly place false agenda of political payback and the politics of personal destruction behind them and begin to do the work they were elected for.

Image Copyright milkybarkid78 [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons