Georgia Risks Good Will of West

Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has steered a strongly pro-Western course, yet continues to risk his relationship with America and Europe for domestic politics.  Moreover, though his nation’s dominant political figure, he continues to sow doubts about his own future.

After his surprise victory in last October’s parliamentary election, Ivanishvili took over as prime minister under President Mikheil Saakashvili.  The new legislature adopted constitutional amendments reducing the latter’s power, and he will leave the political scene when Georgians elected a new president this fall.

No one doubted Prime Minister Ivanishivili’s authority to change policy direction.  However, Western fears have grown that he is using his new-found power to exact revenge against members of the prior government.

For instance, in May the authorities arrested former Prime Minister Ivane Merabishvili and charged him with abuse of power, embezzlement, and other offenses.  Merabishivili also serves as secretary-general of the United National Movement, Saakashvili’s party, and was the likely UNM presidential candidate in this coming October’s poll.  A number of other previous government officials have been arrested as well.

Of course, they all may be guilty as charged.  However, the State Department warned Tbilisi to avoid “the perception or reality of political retribution.”  The prosecutions offer an obvious advantage to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, while the prime minister has dismissed criticism of the appearance of abuse.  He denounced the Washington Post for a critical editorial, charging the paper with getting its information from Saakashvili’s lobbyists.

Prime Minister Ivanishvili has further fueled the critical claims by responding “nothing can be excluded” when asked about the possibility of arresting the president.  Holding officials accountable for abusing their positions is critical, and Mikheil Saakashvili never lived up to his pristine Western image.  Nevertheless, democracy will be forever unstable and insecure if the victors use their newly acquired powers to prosecute (or persecute) their opponents.

Also of interest is how long Prime Minister Ivanishvili will remain on the scene.  In May he proclaimed:  “I serve my homeland and will stay serving it for as long as necessary.”  A month later he said that “I intend to leave politics soon.  As soon as Saakashvili goes, and new presidential elections take place, I will leave a few days after.”

There is no reason to assume either statement represents the true position of the mercurial billionaire.  He probably doesn’t even know his future plans.  But he does his nation no favors by reinforcing his own unpredictable image.

Georgia retains a highly favored position in both America and Europe.  However, the Ivanishvili government risks squandering its advantages.  If the prime minister wants to set himself apart from countries such as Russia that have been appropriately criticized for their repressive political practices, he needs to avoid the suspicion that he is doing the same.

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