Georgia may maintain that its army is all grown-up now and ready to join NATO, but how criminal charges brought against ex-Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia and two senior military figures will play in Brussels is grabbing attention within Tbilisi.
NATO's Military Committee, the Alliance's senior military-policy body, has postponed a visit to Georgia scheduled for late November -- the Georgian government claims it is because the post of joint chief of staff is vacant, but critics lay the blame on the recent arrests of Akhalaia, Joint Chief of Staff Giorgi Kalandadze and Zurab Shamatava, the commander of the Georgian army's elite 4th brigade.
The Alliance did not respond to a EurasiaNet.org request for comment.
Akhalaia also has been charged with the "illegal imprisonment" of an unnamed individual, a crime that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. In a November 9 statement, General Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili claimed that both men had attacked the supposed victim in a restaurant, then summoned special forces to tie him up and hold him in a Tbilisi apartment. The motivation for these alleged actions was not clear.
The three men have denied all the charges. At an initial November 10 hearing (which was not televised), Kalandadze and Shamatava were released on 20,000-lari ($12,024) bails, while Akhalaia has been kept in prison pending trial.
Senior allies of President Saakashvili continue to claim that the arrests are little more than political retribution by the new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and his Georgian-Dream coalition.
An enraged former Prime Minister/Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili has denounced the style of the arrests as reminiscent of the KGB, while Saakashvili himself, who has met with Kalandadze's family, has criticized the procedures as flying in the face of the law and showing disrespect for the military.
Prime Minister Ivanishvili, who has already declared that he thinks "illegal acts have been committed," responded that the Saakashvili loyalists are getting ahead of themselves with the claims of political repression, and that video evidence of the alleged abuses will be released soon.
Meanwhile, lurking in the background is a still more serious allegation. Justice Minister Tea Tsukiani told Rustavi2 that investigators are looking into a claim that Akhalaia was allegedly involved in the prison-death of retired Colonel Sergo Tetradze, arrested in 2011 for suspected espionage. Charges have not yet been filed.
Ever sensitive to Georgia's reputation abroad, some analysts worry that, whether the defendants are guilty or innocent, the whole affair will do "nothing good for Georgia's prestige."
The Ivanishvili government should have handled the case more delicately, even if the accusations against Akhalaia, Kapandadze and Shamatava are legitimate, commented a think-tank co-founded by former Deputy Foreign Minister Sergi Kapanadze in a statement to EurasiaNet.org.
“The arrest of… [Kapandadze] sends a negative signal to NATO” ahead of the Brussels meeting and creates the perception that the Georgian army is in disarray, said Georgia's Reforms Associates. A December 4-5 meeting of Alliance foreign ministers in Brussels "has a potential to serve as a milestone in our NATO integration and the government should do everything in its power to use such opportunities.”
The Ivanishvili government has dismissed such criticism, saying that NATO integration is still a priority for Georgia, but that arresting the trio was both legal and legitimate.
Ivanishvili has said he will meet NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on November 14. But the debate about any damage done to Georgia's NATO reputation, and its causes, is likely to continue.