Saturday, 13 July 2013

United National Movement Steps Down in Tbilisi City Council

Published in Field Reports
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by Eka Janashia (07/10/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On July 1, the United National Movement (UNM) lost its majority in Tbilisi City Council (Sakrebulo) after Koki Ionatamishvili, a close aide to Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava and the chairman of the party’s faction in the council, left the UNM.

Ionatamishvili publicly explained his decision as motivated by the UNM’s failure to transform and renew itself, which compelled him to leave the party. He also criticized the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition for purposely destroying the UNM and prompting the polarization of Georgian society.

In response, the president’s administration speedily exposed a private letter Ionatamishvili sent to Saakashvili several months ago, in which the former chairman requests Saakashvili’s assistance in selling his two percent share in a company for US$ 100,000. The revelation of the letter highlighted the personal reasons for Ionatamishvili’s resignation beyond ideological ones.

Despite the fact that the UNM is losing its remaining political power at the local level, the GD still falls short of majority in the capital city’s Sakrebulo. Out of the 50 Sakrebulo seats, three are vacant, 23 are held by UNM representatives and five by independent members, while the remaining seats are held either by members of the GD coalition or individuals affiliated with it.

The UNM claims that state authorities have exercised enormous pressure at the local level since the October 2012 parliamentary elections, after which dozens of UNM members abandoned their party’s mandates in Sakrebulos across Georgia. 

In the morning of June 27, 23 Tbilisi municipality officials including UNM members were detained at various locations by the Finance Ministry’s (FM) investigations unit and then released. The FM declared that they were gathered “for questioning as witnesses in an ongoing investigation related to misspending and embezzlement of the municipality’s budgetary funds” and then were allowed to leave. However, some of the Tbilisi municipal officials insisted that they were handcuffed and told that they were arrested rather than summoned as witnesses. The incident took place while a NATO delegation led by Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was visiting Georgia. Tbilisi’s mayor Ugulava said that the government apparently released the detainees to eschew a political scandal.

Nevertheless, shortly after the NATO delegation left Tbilisi’s airport another wave of detentions started. The deputy mayor of Tbilisi Davit Alavidze, the head of the Tbilisi Development Fund Davit Avaliani, the head of the procurement service in the Tbilisi City Hall Alexi Tabuashvili, and the deputy head of the capital city’s Mtatsminda district Dimitri Chkheidze were arrested on the same day.

According to the FM investigations service, they have been charged with embezzlement and misspending of GEL 48.9 million from the Tbilisi Development Fund (TDF) – the municipal entity providing finances for the rehabilitation of old parts of the capital city. The FM reported that the TDF was used for the UNM party’s various expenses in 2011-2012 by creating 719 fictitious jobs and transferring money to salary cards that senior municipality officials would later withdraw and misspend. Alternatively, finances were embezzled from the TDF budget by hiring two private companies providing food services at events hosted by the UNM, the FM investigations service said.

Although all four officials were detained in Tbilisi, the case was submitted to the Rustavi city court, which ordered pretrial detention for them on June 30. The UNM representatives suggested that the FM has more clout over the court in Rustavi than in Tbilisi.

The judge initially accepted the defense lawyers’ motion that the four officials were arrested in violation of criminal code procedures and ruled that all four should be released immediately. Yet, while UNM supporters were applauding the judge’s decision, the latter unexpectedly agreed to the prosecution’s motion and ordered pretrial detention for the already released officials.

The Public Defender’s office as well as three watchdog groups – Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, Transparency International Georgia and International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy – questioned the legality of the FM investigations service’s actions. 

The president of the monitoring committee of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, Lars O. Molin said in a statement on July 4 that the “the number of legal proceedings” and the “manner” in which local elected representatives have been arrested triggered “deep concerns” of the committee.

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said that if there were procedural violations, an investigation should be carried out and offenders punished. That mass detentions took place “at a politically wrong time” indicates that “all processes are not managed by a single person and from one center and that is normal and good,” he said.

However, the detention and quick release of local officials, followed by a renewed wave of arrests more likely indicates mismanagement and a lack of coordination among state agencies rather than a positive trend. Further, the Rustavi court’s move most probably demonstrates pressure on the judiciary system that could hardly be appraised as “good” or “normal.”

Whereas the continuing retreat of the UNM members signals a crisis for the party, it does not seem like a natural process but rather depicts the government’s intention to wipe out the president’s party from the political scene.

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