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.
In the Caucasus, Georgia is often seen as spoiled for choices. But, for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement, the big choice boils down to just one: with the West or against it.
Or, in other words, with the United National Movement (UNM) or against it. At an April 19 rally in downtown Tbilisi meant to prove to Georgia that the former ruling party is still a political force with which to be reckoned, President Saakashvili whipped up hundreds of supporters with memories of the Russian army's invasion of the country in 2008, and the world’s support for Georgia.
Leveraging lingering fears that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is driving Georgia away from the West, Saakashvili called on Georgians to “make a choice” against occupation.
“I want to say that the Georgian people will choose, not between traitors and half-traitors, but between patriots and even bigger patriots,” he said, speaking to a crowd that stretched down Rustaveli Avenue for more than a block.
“If we choose dishonorably, we will receive complete occupation,” he asserted. (Tbilisi argues that the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, housing thousands of Russian troops since the 2008 war, are under occupation.) “If we stand with honor, we will free the entire country.”
Anticipating the punch, a session of leaders from Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition had taken to the airwaves before the rally to remind voters that they firmly support membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Georgia's political culture may have just hit puberty. After ferocious debating over constitutional amendment meant to cut presidential powers, the measure passed on March 21 in a unanimous first-run vote.
The final vote is scheduled for Monday, but the drama-filled initial hearing promises to be the true grand finale of the constitutional epic. The second-stage vote occurred on Friday without incident.
The amendment will divest President Mikheil Saakashvili of the right to dismiss Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s cabinet and appoint a new government without parliamentary approval.
Saakashvili has maintained repeatedly that he has no interest in using the amendment, but the fact that the power will not vanish at the whim of a single political party or person, but by the will of two opposing political forces, is almost as momentous to many Georgians as the planned constitutional change itself.
Still a novel concept in Georgia's polarized politics, the compromise came after hours of debate in parliament and many calls to the president’s and the prime minister’s houses. The voting was preceded by a long and trying ping-pong of petty exchanges between the president and prime minister.
President Saakashvili insisted that he had no intention to sabotage the prime minister, to whom he conceded the choice of cabinet members after last year’s parliamentary vote, but Ivanishvili needed more than just the president's word for peace of mind. The variety of requests Saakashvili put forth in exchange for his United National Movement Party’s consent to the amendment included immunity from prosecution for former mid-level government officials.
Exploring the strange, new world of bipartisanship has been a school of hard knocks for Georgia and, so, perhaps it is only fitting that the country's power-share struggles have now entered the classroom.
An agriculture university, of all places, has suddenly become the main battlefield in the tug-of-war between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili. The government on March 12 stripped the university of its accreditation, sparking a maelstrom of protest and near-national debate.
Ivanishvili’s education officials explained the decision by citing allegedly deficient quality standards at the school, the brainchild and money pit of President Saakashvili’s former economy minister, the rich, rotund libertarian Kakha Bendukidze.
Bendukidze, chair of the university's supervisory board, scoffed at the government’s claims of glitches and described the school's loss of accreditation as the Ivanishvili government's personal vendetta.
“This university has one big, 187-kilo defect, and that’s me,” the economics guru declared. He sent the nitpicking education officials to hell, and called on the students to fight for their right to education.
The students, who have found their studies hanging up in the air just before midterms, did not have to be asked twice. Agriculture University students and sympathizers from other schools took to Tbilisi's streets, while debates rage on TV and online.
With all the dramatic flair of a silent movie star, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent his security detail home the other day, later saying he needs no bodyguard other than his Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs. He then sat down in his tiny blue electric car and drove himself and the First Lady to the Tbilisi airport for an official trip to Baku.
But after coming back from Azerbaijan, the president found a convoy of security vehicles waiting for him at the airport, as if they were never dismissed. The big black SUVs, dispatched by the government, followed home the little presidential Nissan Leaf, which resolutely ignored them.
President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili have fought over speeches, arrests, constitutional changes and more. So, it should come as no surprise that they are now fighting over whether or not the president will have bodyguards.
Since last year's parliamentary elections, most components of the presidential security service -- like most of Georgia's government agencies -- have been taken over by the prime minister’s office. In turn, the president claims that the prime minister's people have been bringing pressure to bear on his personal bodyguards, so that he was compelled to relinquish the reported 350-person team altogether.
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.
While the 37-year-old mayor, one of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s closest allies, has denied any wrongdoing, the February 23 indictment is another political blow to the president, and puts another yawning crack into efforts by the country’s divided national government to coexist peacefully.
The Georgian Ministry of Finance’s Investigative Service alleges that Ugulava was involved in a convoluted real estate transaction that cost “the budget” 10 million lari (approximately $6 million) in a bid to place a private national broadcaster, Imedi, which had been critical of Saakashvili, under de-facto government control. Though they have not detailed their reasoning, investigators have termed the alleged misuse of funds “money laundering.”
The case centers around the city’s sale and subsequent repurchase of a four-hectare plot of land in a popular Tbilisi neighborhood, Rike, that was aggressively promoted for development during Saakashvili's United National Movement's years in power.
Just when you least expected it, Georgia's politicians have found things to discuss – and agree on – without losing teeth or gaining a bloody nose in the process.
The ruling Georgian Dream coalition, led by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the opposition United National Movement, headed by President Mikheil Saakashvili, reportedly have made it to the verge of an agreement on planned constitutional reform.
The negotiations were led by Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili for the Georgian Dream and Parliamentary Minority Leader Davit Bakradze for the United National Movement; arguably, two of the most circumspect politicians from either side.
What prevents them from "getting to yes", though, is an amnesty proposal which, for outsiders, could raise as many questions about Georgia's legal system as it does about the current tense political environment.
The two sides have provided contradictory descriptions of the proposed amnesty.
Usupashvili claimed that the UNM has demanded an unconditional amnesty from criminal prosecution for all government officials, ranging from the president to town council chairpeople, for any liable activities, apart from violent or other severe crimes, up until November 1, 2012.
Bakradze, for his part, arguing that "15,000 people" have been questioned because of ties to the UNM, asserted that the amnesty is about stopping "political persecution." It would apply not to current or ex-head-honchos, but to "the thousands" of people going in for questioning "daily" – defined as those under the rank of a ministerial administrative chief's deputy, he said.
"This was no democracy," Georgian media reported a frustrated US Ambassador Richard Norland as saying after a violent February 8 bust-up in Tbilisi over Georgian President Mikheil Saakasvhili's annual state-of-the-nation speech.
The US embassy offered a more diplomatic version of the language used, and the European Union and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, among others, have expressed similar grievances. But the impression left was the same: Four months after becoming the first ex-Soviet republic in the South Caucasus to see a change of government via the ballot box, Georgia nonetheless is still having trouble getting democracy to fit right.
Ever sensitive to the political risk of being blamed, both at home and abroad, for causing Georgia to miss yet another chance at success, both government and opposition are now putting on a determined effort, by hook or by crook, to show that they're all about dialogue.
A growing company of former Georgian government officials is jingling its way into prison before New Year’s Eve as the gloves come off in the ongoing confrontation between Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Yesterday, ex-Education/Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia, the current director of pro-Saakashvili TV station Rustavi2; ex-Energy/Finance Minister Aleksandre Khetaguri and ex-Deputy Economic Development Minister Kakha Damenia joined the list of Saakashvili loyalists under arrest.
Their arrests, on charges of corruption, while hailed by many critics of Saakashvili, have further fueled worries about allegedly selective prosecutions.
That sense of unease extended even to one member of the Georgian Dream, who spoke up on Facebook for the 36-year-old Gvaramia, his status update duly broadcast by Rustavi2.
Some reporters went still further and questioned why it is necessary to keep the ex-officials in jail during the holiday season, given the ongoing investigations into their cases. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukuni's response? Ringing in the New Year from prison is "not a big deal."
Saakashvili has strongly defended the incarcerated ex-officials, saying they were arrested by “classroom underachievers.” UNM parliamentarians responded by walking out of parliament. Angry protesters who mobbed the presidential convoy, and had at it with UNM lawmakers, were certainly ready to wish them well on their way. Ivanishvili condemned the incident, but Saakashvili placed the blame on the prime minister, adding that the Georgian Dream also wants to take away his bodyguards.