In the latest twist in Georgia's ongoing, high-stakes political drama, a Tbilisi court on February 25 rejected the central government's demand for the resignation of Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, one of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's closest allies, following criminal charges on misuse of budgetary funds.
Pending an April 10 hearing on the charges of alleged embezzlement/misappropriation of funds and money-laundering,Ugulava, Georgia's first elected mayor, was not required to post bail
and will be left free. The prosecution had requested that bail be set at one million laris
(over $600,000), Ugulava's suspension from office and a ban on travel
“I simply don’t have a million lari to pay,” declared Ugulava, to jeers from Georgian Dream members, who long have accused the 37-year-old mayor of skimming off millions from the city budget.
The judge found no grounds for any of the proposed measures against Ugulava; a ruling that a packed courtroom and supporters outside cheered as a clear victory.
Former Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, whom prosecutors named as the middle man in an alleged government attempt involving Ugulava to take over the private TV station Imedi, was sentenced to pre-trial detention in-absentia. His whereabouts are not known.
President Saakashvili strongly defended Ugalava and, again, slammed the ongoing prosecutions of his loyalists as an attempt by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to destroy the opposition, represented by Saakashvili's United National Movement.
“The people, who came to power, think that if you are holding public office and you are not making millions you must be a fool,” declared Saakashvili.
“[Prime Minister Bidzina] Ivanishvili’s goals are clear – it is to get his hands on the Tbilisi municipality and make it part of his personal kolkhoz,” claimed the mayor before walking into the court room.
Many Georgians have reasons to be skeptical of people on either side of the political aisle, though.
During the UNM's 2004-2012 rule, popular speculation ran wild that the Tbilisi mayor and other officials were involved in various shady business and political deals. At the same time, frustration has surfaced that Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream is more intent on prosecuting Saakashvili's allies than it is in meeting its campaign promises for improved social welfare.
Many believe that both courts and state prosecutors fail to act independently in partisan struggles; the court system generally has been viewed as loyal to Saakashvili.
Georgian Dream members, though, have shrugged off allegations of a political witch hunt. “Of course, the political opposition will speak about political persecution," reasoned Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze. " That what’s the political opposition is for."
The prosecutors said that their investigation into Mayor Ugulava may lead them to question President Saakashvili as a witness in the case. The prosecutors have yet to prove the mayor’s guilt, but this and earlier cases, have already proven that Georgia is too small for two leaders.