BACKGROUND: A month after sentencing former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili to five and a half years in prison for abuse of power and corruption, Georgia’s Prosecutor’s Office summoned President Saakashvili in March for questioning in connection to multiple cases currently under investigation, including the circumstances surrounding the death of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania in 2005. In early April, Mr. Bokeria, UNM’s International Secretary and the former Head of the National Security Council, was also called to the Prosecutor’s Office for questioning in connection with an investigation into alleged budgetary misspending by the Council during his time in office.
UNM has voiced strong criticism against the targeting of high-level officials, which it refers to as political persecution and a means to shift focus away from lack of progress in other fields ahead of the local elections in June.
Merabishvili, Saakashvili and Bokeria are not the first to have been targeted by the judiciary since the GD coalition took power in Georgia after the country’s October 2012 parliamentary elections. Less than two years after the peaceful power transfer, 35 former government officials have been charged with criminal offenses; fourteen are still in pre-trial detention. Dozens of other civil servants with links to the UNM have also been charged and sentenced. So far, Merabishvili, who served as Prime Minister for less than four months in 2012 in the Saakashvili-led government, is the highest-ranking former official to have been convicted.
Georgia’s Western partners have repeatedly expressed their concern and warned about the use of political retribution and selective justice in Georgia. Already in November 2012, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton declared that “there should be no selective justice; no retribution against political rivals. Investigations into past wrongdoings must be, and must be seen to be, impartial, transparent and in compliance with due process.” With reference to the decision by Georgian authorities to call former President Saakashvili for questioning, the U.S. Department of State declared that “no one is above the law, but launching multiple simultaneous investigations involving a former President raises legitimate concerns about political retribution, particularly when legal and judicial institutions are still fragile.”
The government dismisses the criticism, arguing that the ongoing investigations against former officials will ensure that nobody is immune from justice. It points to an ambitious reform agenda aimed at strengthening the judicial system and restore trust in the Prosecutors Office.
Indeed, the GD-led government has faced the challenge of inheriting a relatively weak judiciary marked by high conviction rates, a lack of independence from the executive branch and public distrust. Since taking office, the government has sought to tackle these issues through a number of measures, including separating the Prosecutor’s Office from the Ministry of Justice (although enabled through the 2013 constitutional amendments, elaborated by the former administration) and reforming the criticized High Council of Justice. The GD administration has highlighted its commitment to judicial reform as a means of consolidating Georgian democracy.
IMPLICATIONS: Yet, it is clear that faster and more determined reforms are needed to strengthen the judiciary and ensure its independence. The Prosecutor’s Office in particular continues to lack transparency and accountability and has been marked by controversies over the last year. Since the power-shift in 2012, the Office has dismissed and replaced almost 100 prosecutors and investigators, in several cases reportedly without explanation. In November 2013, Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili unexpectedly resigned from his post, allegedly in part due to controversies with hawkish Deputy Prosecutor Lasha Natsvlishvili who later also left the Office. Only six weeks after taking office, Kbilashvili’s successor Otar Partskhaladze also resigned following allegations of his criminal record in Germany.
While it is in the government’s interest to correct mistakes of the past, the timing of the investigations launched against high-profile UNM officials, just ahead of the June elections, raises doubts whether law and justice are the real motivating factors. As the authorities have yet to make clear the criteria used for determining the prosecutions, perceptions of selective justice are only fuelled.
The context in which the legal actions are being taken adds to such suspicions. The GD coalition, which raised significant public expectations during its election campaign, has yet to find solutions to Georgia’s most pressing socio-economic problems. Economic growth has decreased significantly over the last year and unemployment remains rampant. Overshadowing these factors by demonstrating power vis-à-vis the opposition will likely secure support for the government in the upcoming elections.
However, the actions could have serious implications for Georgia. Both the EU and the U.S. have already voiced criticism against the government’s selective targeting of former UNM officials. With the recent summoning of both Mr. Saakashvili and Mr. Bokeria, both high-profile personalities with ties to the West, the government displays its determination to carry out its agenda regardless of negative perceptions among its Western allies. In spite of their current preoccupation with the crisis in Ukraine, the EU and U.S. are unlikely to turn a blind eye to what could be regarded as democratic missteps by Georgia. This is troublesome as Tbilisi, in light of current developments in the region, is now strongly dependent on support from its Western allies.
A heavily polarized political scene in Georgia also continues to hamper its democratic agenda. Ever since the Rose Revolution, weak opposition structures and a lack of constructive political dialogue between the political blocs have been major impediments to democratic progress. Continued political controversies will only cause a setback in democratic processes, which is worrisome given Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions. In tandem with the security threat that the country continues to face from the Russian Federation, an inflamed political climate risks fanning national unrest and political radicalism, which exposes the country to external infiltration.
The domestic controversies may ultimately also expose rifts within the GD coalition itself. While certain factions within the government appear inclined to pursue the investigations to weaken the opposition, others appear significantly less enthusiastic. Again, a politically divided government in Tbilisi becomes vulnerable to manipulation. Moscow is likely to take advantage of such internal divisions and attempt to use it as leverage. In this light, the government has an important task ahead in proving itself as a united and consistent force, both domestically and internationally.
Equally, the UNM will face the challenge of surviving as the leading opposition force. The previously unchallenged party has already undergone the difficult process of constructing a consistent party identity after its defeat in both the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections. The loss of key personalities in the UNM leadership is likely to cause a serious setback for the party, which remains dependent on strong front figures.
CONCLUSIONS: Recent events in Georgia demonstrate that the country continues to grapple with shortcomings in terms of the political climate and the performance of the judiciary. Georgian politics remain highly polarized, and the campaign to judicially target UNM officials is likely to drive the political forces even further apart. This is troublesome because a weakened opposition does not work in Georgia’s favor; on the contrary, a vibrant opposition has been a missing component in the country’s democratization process since the Rose Revolution. Georgia is undergoing a sensitive process of integrating more closely with the West, while it remains exposed to significant security challenges, and it is perhaps more important than ever for the political blocs to engage in constructive dialogue. Given the current developments in Ukraine and their implications for the region, the government needs to promote national unity rather than engaging in actions that will only cause further fragmentation of the political scene, which will only make the country vulnerable to extended provocations from the North.
While there is a need to establish justice and ensure political accountability, it is crucial that the Georgian government handles this process in accordance with transparent and objective standards to avoid further controversies. Selective targeting of high-profile opposition representatives, coupled with provocative statements that disregard the judicial processes, only fuels suspicions of retributive rather than justice-seeking motives and causes further disintegration of the already heavily polarized political scene. There is reason for all political players in Georgia to show restraint and engage in constructive political debate, or the country risks a troublesome setback in its development processes and exposure to serious security challenges ahead.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Johanna Popjanevski is Deputy Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and currently based in Tbilisi. Carolin Funke is an independent analyst based in Germany. She was an intern with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center in 2013.
(Image Attribution: InterPressNews)