Western Warnings over Georgia Arrests

Senior U.S., European Union, and NATO officials have warned Georgian Prime Minister Bidzinia Ivanishvili in recent weeks to guard against the appearance of political score settling as a series of arrests of former government officials continues unabated in Tbilisi.  U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon met with Ivanishvili in the Georgian capital in mid-November and stressed Washington’s concern over the appearance that Ivanishvili’s between ruling Georgian Dream coalition is conducting a witch-hunt against members of the opposition United National Movement headed by President Mikheil Saakashvili.

“Everybody wants to see rule of law implemented and anybody who has committed a crime to be held accountable,” Gordon said after the meeting. “But at the same time it is essential to avoid any perception or reality of selective prosecutions. If it looks like or it is designed solely to go after political adversaries or it’s not done in a transparent way, then the whole country will pay the price.”

Those words were echoed the following week by EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy chief Catherine Ashton at a stopover in Tbilisi ahead of a tour of Central Asian nations.  In an interview granted to Radio Liberty before the trip, Ashton outlined the EU’s message for Ivanishvili.

“We saw Georgia make a big political decision, a democratic transition, if you like, and I will say to Prime Minister Ivanishvili that we welcome the fact that as prime minister he wants to devote his energy to the economic challenges of his country, that he needs to think about some of the foreign policy challenges of the country, and he needs to make sure that in everything he does — particularly in the world of justice — that it is done in an open and transparent way.”

Ivanishvili maintains that there is no witch-hunt in Georgia, although he acknowledged the concerns in Western capitals are “understandable” given the arrest and detention of nearly twenty prominent former government officials.  He took pains to characterize his government’s actions as, “in compliance with democracy, and not in any way a political persecution or selective justice.”  His Justice Minister, Tea Tsulukiani, in remarks given the same day as the Prime Minister’s comments and clearly intended for a domestic audience, was decidedly less conciliatory.

“What is happening today is not political persecution. What is happening is an investigation into who committed a crime and who suffered from it.  Having held a senior position in the past does not of itself bestow immunity,” Tsulukiani said.

Ivanishvili’s campaign against former government officials is centered on the Interior and Defense ministries and involves allegations of abuse of office, illegal wire-tapping and surveillance, and prisoner abuse. But there are high profile investigations of regional and municipal officials as well, including three separate investigations of seven departments of Tbilisi’s government.  All those under arrest or investigation are former members of parliament and/or active members of Saakashvili’s party, including the man Saakashvili recently tasked with leading UNM back to power.

More troubling from the U.S. perspective, however, may be a recent Economist report that Ivanishvili’s government is seeking to release convicted Russian spies, including terrorists convicted in a bombing outside the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi in 2010.  Saakashvili alleged that Russian Army intelligence assets based in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia were behind the bombing, and shared his justice ministry’s findings with U.S. State Department, Pentagon, and Congressional officials.  If the bombers are released, it would be the clearest signal yet to Washington that Georgia’s new leader intends to turn his back on years of progress under Saakashvili to greater ties with the West.

Some observers are beginning to conclude that Ivanishvili’s target is President Saakashvili himself.  The Prime Minister has publicly called on Saakashvili to step down, although his term does not expire until next year and the constitution prevents him from running again.  In that context, the arrests of former Saakashvili acolytes appear to be intended to discredit the president and force his resignation.

It is becoming clear, though, that the campaign has both proven its point and outlived its usefulness.  Legitimate allegations of wrongdoing must be pursued and the guilty punished. This is a basic democratic responsibility that all Western governments accept.  Ivanishvili, however, has taken it too far.  Feeling the reins of power, he has Georgia galloping headlong into a political crisis that will ultimately undermine democratic governance by criminalizing political disagreements, strangling any chance of inter-party cooperation.  The resulting instability will only benefit Russia, which has sought greater influence in the region since the rise of Putin.  If he continues, Ivanishvili may indeed get his renewed Russian relationship, although perhaps not on terms of Georgia’s choosing.

Image Copyright Shutterstock.com/BestPhotoPlus