Georgia’s jailed, former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was sentenced to three years in prison on October 20 for his alleged role in a haunting 2006 murder case. Once the all-powerful muscle of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, Merabishvili was found guilty of obstructing justice in the high-profile death of a 28-year-old banker, Sandro Girgvliani.
The court ruled that Merabishvili used his office to cover up evidence against his employees who abducted and beat Girgvliani, and left him to die. Grigvliani’s death, which followed an altercation in a Tbilisi cafe that involved Merabishvili’s wife, grew into a national scandal that would haunt the Saakashvili administration for years to come.
Merabishvili’s wife, Tako Salakia, and many interior ministry officials were present at the fateful birthday gathering, when Girgvliani showed up with a friend and got into an argument with the group. Several interior ministry officials allegedly later abducted Girgvliani and his friend, Levan Bukhaidze, and took them to the city’s outskirts to beat them. Girgvliani is believed to have died of his injuries or have frozen to death; Bukhaidze escaped.
Girgviliani’s mother, Irina Enukidze, engaged in a long and daring battle with the authorities, accusing them of covering up the murder. Her claims mushroomed into what became, essentially, the first large-scale public pushback against Saakashvili’s administration. With opposition parties and opposition-minded media by her side, she called for the resignation of Merabishvili and the arrest of his wife; both of whom she was convinced had given the order to teach Girgvliani a lesson.
Taxpayer-expensed Botox and hair-removal procedures are among the Georgian government’s latest charges of alleged misappropriation against ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose property in Georgia was seized by police late last week.
And not only his. His wife and mother’s Tbilisi apartments and his grandmother’s 17-year-old Honda Accord were among the items seized on September 19 as apparent compensation for some $5-million worth of state funds prosecutors claim the ex-president misused for things like facials, spas and fancy clothes.
The case has not yet gone to trial, but prosecutors claim that the refusal of Saakashvili, now based in Brooklyn, to face a court in Georgia justified the seizure of his wider family’s property. “[T]here was a reasonable suspicion… that he would transfer or otherwise conceal his and his associates’ property to obstruct compensating for the damage to the state,” the General Prosecutor’s Office said in a September-19 statement.
But some are raising eyebrows at that reasoning. Saakashvili’s Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs, said on Friday that she had purchased her Tbilisi apartment long before her husband became president in 2004, from funds derived from the sale of another flat which her father had given her as a wedding gift.
Times and governments may change in Georgia, but angst over supposedly imminent coups lingers on. Once again, Georgian officials, shading their eyes with their hands, have looked into the distance, and reported back to voters about a vague menace that only they can see.
This time, 29-year-old Georgian Interior Minister Aleksandre Chikaidze claims he has it on good authority that ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and his legislative minority, the United National Movement (UNM), are plotting to destabilize the country, provoke the police, manipulate sensitive topics such as the bad economy or the Russian threat, and then seize power as Georgia descends into “chaos and anarchy.”
In a September 10 interview with a local tabloid, Chikaidze asserted that Saakashvili has recruited 500 agent-provacatuers — and some non-profit groups, as well — to bring the plan to life.
Chikaidze claimed that, as less than an on-camera natural, he, of course, will be targeted first. Apparently, that explains the recent criticism of his alleged failure to deal with a spate of murders and burglaries.
But this isn’t just the one-off of a minister known for his verbal gaffes. Now, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has gotten into the act, too, claiming that the threat is for real and the government won’t stand for it. The police have even launched an investigation.
In the latest episode of the cat-and-mouse game between Georgia's current authorities and its former president, Mikheil (Misha) Saakashvili allegedly nearly escaped arrest in Greece.
The Georgian government may not be aware of it, but its attempts to catch the ex-president increasingly resemble Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Though Saakashvili and his entourage ardently deny it, Georgian officials claim that border guards at the Greek vacation island of Samos on September 1 briefly detained a yacht carrying the ex-president and “other Georgian citizens.”
Georgian prosecutors asserted that they had alerted the Greek police about the menace approaching their shores, but the Greek authorities released Saakashvili for lack of an international arrest warrant. Georgian Ambassador to Greece Davit Bakradze claimed that the boat arrived from Turkey, and was detained for four hours. Also on board allegedly was Saakashvili's friend, the former governor of Georgia's seaside region of Achara, Levan Varshalomidze.
Georgia’s general prosecutor’s office said it has yet to convince Interpol to place the former Georgian president on the organization's international search list.
In September 3 comments to Rustavi2, Saakashvili angrily denied that he had been detained in Greece for any length of time.
Saakashvili's longtime aide and ex-National Security Council chief, Giga Bokeria, accused Georgia's ambassador and the ruling Georgian-Dream coalition of spreading petty rumors.
These days, it may sometimes seem that few among Georgia’s former ruling United National Movement have escaped the scrutiny of the country’s eager-beaver prosecutors. But there’s always someone new.
This time, it’s 42-year-old Davit Bakradze, a former foreign minister and parliamentary speaker under ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, and now the head of the United National Movement’s opposition faction in parliament.
On August 20, an unknown individual purporting to be Bakradze distributed to news outlets via Facebook alleged correspondence between the British retail bank chain HSBC and the ex-parliamentary speaker and his wife about a former account, apparently held in their names, that had contained 287,000 pounds (just over $476,000 at 2014 rates).
While such tip-offs might not seem, at first glance, watertight sources of information, the prosecutor’s office rolled up their sleeves and started — yep, you guessed it — a criminal investigation.
Bakradze had not named such a bank account in any of his declarations about his financial assets since the account’s opening in 2009, prosecutors claimed. Nor did its balance correspond with the official income of the ex-parliamentary speaker “and his family members,” they added in a statement.
“[T]he information reported via mass media contains elements of an offence under the Criminal Code,” they concluded.
Already facing charges of abuse of power, Saakashvili now stands accused of allegedly ordering the beating of a businessman-lawmaker nine years ago. Valeri Gelashvili, at the time an opposition member of parliament, was severely thrashed in July 2005. The prosecutors allege that the masked men involved were special police officers acting on orders from Saakashvili and then Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili in retaliation for a newspaper interview in which Gelashvili accused Saakashvili of unlawfully seizing his property and made disparaging comments about the president’s private life.
In 2005, however, the story was somewhat different. In an interview with EurasiaNet.org at the time, Gelashvili stated that the attack was related to some $2.19 million (4 million lari) that the government supposedly had owed for work his construction company, Evra, had done on Georgia’s new presidential palace.
In comments to the press on August 5, Gelashvili described himself as “thankful” for these latest charges against Saakashvili, who has been sentenced to pre-trial detention in absentia. Merabishvili, who also has been indicted, already is doing time on other charges.
The prosecutors’ statement contains no details about the corroborating evidence against either man.
Georgia is now chasing its former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, with criminal charges of abuse of authority. But the leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution has no intention of turning himself in to prosecutors whom some see as fixated on crushing the ex-president and his allies.
Oh, that awkward moment when the head of state shows up uninvited at a milestone-event in a country’s history. Georgia had just that moment on July 18, when its parliament endorsed the Association Agreement with the European Union. Just about everyone — foreign ambassadors, civil society figures and government ministers – was invited to parliament to give a big hand to Georgia’s European future. But President Giorgi Margvelashvili was not.
The tension between Margvelashvili, Georgia’s directly elected head of state, and its appointed head of government, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, has been on everyone’s lips for quite some time now. This time, it played out in public.
Throughout the day on July 18, reporters had wondered why the president was not on the guest list for Georgia’s official European début. “Not everyone can fit in this building,” responded Eka Beselia, a senior lawmaker from the ruling Georgia Dream coalition, chaired by Prime Minister Gharibashvili.
Margvelashvili put paid to that when he walked in as the parliamentary session was about to kick off and plopped down in a chair with a contented smile. “See, I have fit, haven't I?” he quipped to Beselia, Tabula.ge reported. It was left to Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili to fill the awkward pause with bows and greetings for all guests of the legislature.
Parliament unanimously approved the Association Agreement, and Margvelashvili and Beselia walked out from the hall together, both wearing happy smiles for the TV cameras.
Sluggish turnout for Georgia’s June-15 local elections suggests that, nearly two years after the country’s first change of power by election, most voters don’t care enough about politics to make it to the polls.
The post of mayor of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital of about 1.2 million, was the biggest prize in the election, which included 12 mayoral and a potpouri of city-council races. But interest ran at a mere 43.31 percent of over 3.4-million registered voters — a lower turnout than in any recent election.
Many voters crossed out all candidates and parties on the ballots, instead leaving messages like “Screw this,” Netgazeti.ge reported.
In the Tbilisi mayor race, early returns placed the ruling Georgian Dream’s mayoral candidate, 35-year-old Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure Davit Narmania, in the lead, though some three percentage points short of the 50-percent cut required for victory. In a second round, Narmania would face the opposition United National Movement candidate Nika Melia, who garnered just under 27 percent of the vote. Whoever gets a simple majority of votes in the runoff will move into the mayor’s office, which is now controlled by the United National Movement.
Tbilisi’s traditional snobbery toward ambitious politicians from the regions (who don't have the moneyed patina of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvilli, that is) may have prevented the Georgian Dream from winning the race in the first go. As an extract from rural Georgia, Narmania has been the target of arrogant attacks by many Tbilisi personalities, including members of the ruling party.
When a secret-recordings scandal hits Georgia, it can only mean one thing – an election. Georgia’s top national TV broadcaster, Rustavi2, dropped a bomb on Friday by airing leaked conversations involving big wigs from politics and business. With municipal elections around the corner next month, this could be just a teaser.
But those Georgian viewers used to more salacious or shocking revelations from past campaign seasons were disappointed this time. Nobody asked for two corpses, or used less-than-flattering epithets to describe their bosses, or revealed a Manchurian-Candidate-style collusion with Russia, the favorite plot line of secret recordings broadcast during ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili's rule.
This time around, the larger sensation is the perception that, despite a change in government, phone-tapping continues, including on top officials and perhaps just about everyone of interest.
Rights groups long have been struggling to end that alleged practice. When allegations surfaced late last year about a government-stash of black boxes, the interior ministry claimed it only listened into phone conversations during criminal investigations.