President Mikheil Saakashvili’s political camp suffered a major blow on May 21 when two prominent presidential allies, former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, once one of Georgia’s most influential politicians, and Kakheti Governor Zurab Tchiaberashvili, were detained on criminal charges of misusing 5.2 million lari ($3.19 million) in public funds.
Lawyers for the two men interviewed by Maestro television reported that they had not yet received the official charges. Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili are currently meeting with their attorneys in a jail in the parliamentary seat of Kutaisi. A court has 48 hours to decide whether to release them on bail.
Merabishvili, who, as interior minister from 2004 to 2012, led the charge under Saakashvili to revamp Georgia’s notoriously corrupt interior ministry, also faces separate charges for allegedly confiscating private property.
Prosecutors have indicated that Merabishvili, now head of the president’s United National Movement (UNM), will likely be charged for additional crimes stemming from the 2006 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani and excessive use of police force during May 26, 2011 protests in Tbilisi as well, Interpressnews.ge reported.
Saakashvili blasted the arrests, accusing the Georgian Dream majority of turning Georgia into a pariah in the international community. The UNM has charged repeatedly that a desire for political retribution drives the government’s prosecution of former senior officials.
“Everyone should think about the political consequences that the arrest of the former prime minister and secretary general of the main opposition party may have on our country, on its international position,” he said.
Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili dismissed the criticism, referring to Merabishvili’s and Tchiaberashvili’s guilt as a given.
“We have to say one thing; nobody is and must be above the law,” Gharibashvili said.
“It must not be a surprise, especially for the National Movement. Everyone knows well what they did for the last nine years,” he commented. “I think that Vano Merabishvili and others who committed crimes -- of course, if it’s confirmed by a court -- have to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
For the UNM, the arrests will likely have a far bigger affect on domestic politics than international relations. Valued within the party for his steely ability to stay cool within a crisis and fight back, a disabled Merabishvili will do little to enhance the UNM’s chances at the polls this October when Georgia elects a new president.
The government’s ever-evolving series of arrests, indictments, and investigations against its leadership already has spelled to many that the UNM is no longer top dog. Members of parliament and local government representatives have drifted away steadily since last October's parliamentary vote, and polls show dwindling popular support.
While Merabishvili's arrest has long been anticipated -- he was initially brought in for questioning in November 2012 after he allegedly submitted a fake passport at the Tbilisi airport – the promise of long-awaited retribution for the Girgvliani case, notorious among many Georgians, could make it difficult for the UNM to rebuild its brand as a strong opposition party in time for this fall's presidential vote.
Or to hold on to valuable parliament seats to prevent the Georgian Dream from undoing Saakashvili-era changes to the constitution. Right now, the Georgian Dream holds 86 seats in parliament; within shooting range of the 100 seats needed to push through changes without collaboration from members of the 55-seat UNM parliamentary faction.
Whether via constitutional changes or otherwise, with the once-powerful Merabishvili behind bars, it appears that an era in the UNM's -- and Georgia's -- political history could be coming to a close.