Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili once called him "my biggest mistake." With the surprise return of ex-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to Tbilisi today, many in Georgia are wondering whether Saakashvili may soon have cause to repeat those words.
After returning early this morning to Tbilisi from years of refuge in Paris, Okruashvili, wanted in Georgia on various criminal charges, went straight to prison. His trial has been scheduled for December 3.
But before settling into his cell room, the onetime-friend-turned-bitter-foe of Saakashvili expressed hopes that he will be cleared of the charges brought against him in 2007, and expressed a keen willingness to assist the Ivanishvili government's prosecutions of former Saakashvili officials.
In a recent streak of arrests and investigations by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanshvili’s government, several loyalists of Mikheil Saakashvili have been snatched away from the Georgian president’s side.
If the ongoing probes somehow fuse into a case against any of these individuals -- most particularly, the president -- arguably, Okruashvili might become a key witness for the prosecution. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani said today that she believes that Okruashvili was politically persecuted by the Saakashvili government, but that that does not mean that he should be automatically cleared of all charges against him. The investigations against him will continue, she said.
What firm proof of any wrongdoing related to any former official that Okruashvili could provide is unclear, but his past allegations have not exactly been free of controversy.
After splitting with Saakashvili in 2007, Okruashvili claimed that the president had ordered him to assassinate Badri Patarkatsishvili, the late owner of Imedi TV station.
He also challenged the official circumstances of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s 2004 death, and claimed that Saakashvili had a plan for attacking breakaway South Ossetia.
Consequently arrested, Okruashvili pled guilty to the charges brought against him, publicly retracted his allegations against the president and was released on bail. He eventually wound up in Paris, where he was declared a political refugee and launched a long-distance battle with Saakashvili.
That battle could well give him common cause with the Ivanishvili government.
Many Georgians have welcomed the government's arrests of ex-officials -- chiefly, that of Akhalaia, who is widely perceived as being responsible for the alleged physical abuse of prisoners -- but many observers fear that the prosecutions have become more about political payback than about pursuit of justice.
This weekend, General Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili announced that his office has a "database" that includes information about members of the former government. Justice Minister Tsulukiani, meanwhile, has said that there are many "questions" about Tbilisi Mayor Givi Ugulava, widely seen as Saakashvili's intended heir apparent, although added that the government does not "know" the proof for any of them. Ugulava and ex-Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, another influential Saakashvili loyalist, have claimed that the recent arrests are linked directly to them and are manifestations of a political vendetta by the Ivanishvili government.
NATO Secretary General Anders fogh Rasmussen, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and most recently US Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Gordon have warned against selective prosecutions.
But Georgian prosecutors seem to be on a roll, and, having Okruashvili in town, don't be surprised if the pace picks up.