Wednesday, 17 September 2014 22:35

Georgia's PM Garibashvili Visits Armenia

By Erik Davtyan (09/17/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On August 21, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili paid a two-day official visit to Armenia. Accepting the official invitation from the Armenian side, Garibashvili had meetings with his counterpart Hovik Abrahamyan, discussing a wide range of issues in the fields of trade relations, infrastructure, education and culture. The Georgian PM was also received by Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan. The interlocutors discussed some aspects of Armenian-Georgian relations, as well as the agreements reached by the two states during Sargsyan’s official visit to Georgia on June 18, 2014.

The August meetings were Garibashvili’s first visit to Yerevan as Georgia’s PM, therefore there were some expectations in Armenia from the official visit. After the “Georgian Dream” coalition’s victory in Georgia’s 2012 parliamentary elections, Garibashvili’s visit became the second by a Georgian chief executive after Bidzina Ivanishvili’s visit in 2013.

Armenia is dependent on Georgia for communication with the outer world, and Georgia serves as a transit corridor for export and import. Since Georgia has recalibrated its foreign policy toward promoting trilateral comprehensive cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan, many in Armenia pay close attention to developments in Georgia’s foreign affairs and its attitude towards Armenia and Armenian-Georgian relations. In this context, the outcomes of Garibashvili’s visit and the high-level meetings potentially have significant implications for Armenia’s geopolitical situation. 

Another matter of concern for Armenia is the future of bilateral relations with Georgia in light of the different paths of regional integration the two countries have chosen. After signing an Association Agreement with the EU on June 27, Georgia has considerably deepened its integration process with the EU. Meanwhile, Armenia continues its route towards membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. The possibility that these divergent integration processes may damage relations between Armenia and Georgia is nevertheless officially downplayed by both sides. During the meeting, Abrahamyan stressed that “Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union will not affect the existing economic relations with Georgia”, and added that “Armenia and Georgia could benefit from adhering to different integration units”. Garibashvili reaffirmed his counterpart’s assessment and added that it “might set a good example for the international community.” However, these viewpoints were criticized by some observers. Tatul Hakobyan, an analyst of the Civilitas foundation, stated that the different directions of integration will damage both Armenian-Iranian and Armenian-Georgian relations, “leading Armenia to economic, political and regional isolation”.

Aside from economic issues, the visit was also important in the context of national security and military affairs. A problematic development from Armenia’s perspective is that the defense ministers of Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan held trilateral meetings on August 18 in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic shortly before Garibashvili’s official visit to Yerevan. During the visit, the three states decided to develop their defense cooperation, and especially the prospect of increased Georgian-Azerbaijani military cooperation caused concern in Armenia. The trilateral meeting was perceived in some circles as a step toward creating a trilateral alliance against Armenia. However, Johnny Melikyan, an expert on Georgian affairs, downplayed the importance of the Nakhchivan meeting, stating that its agenda did not go beyond that of a series of similar meetings that have periodically been organized between Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan since 2011, and does not have any specific importance for Armenian-Georgian relations. According to Melikyan, Georgia is interested in sustaining the balance in the South Caucasus, not in undermining Armenia’s national security.

Other analysts expressed disappointment regarding the lack of output from Garibashvili’s visit. Arnold Stepanyan, leader of the civil initiative Multinational Georgia, stated that “Garibashvili’s visit to Armenia was perceived as an ordinary visit, as another meeting: nothing special was said or written.” Stepanyan thinks the state-level discussion of bilateral relations delivered less than expected and the lack of new agreements mark limited progress in broadening bilateral relations.

According to bestnews.am, “Garibashvili paid ‘a get-to-know-you visit’ to Armenia,” based on which increasing cooperation can evolve between Garibashvili’s and Abrahamyan’s cabinets. Despite the variety in opinions, the visit of the Georgian Prime Minister was generally perceived as a positive step towards an intensification of Armenian-Georgian relations.

Published in Field Reports

By Eka Janashia (08/14/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The summer of 2014 was replete with striking political events in Georgia. The country held local elections on June 15 - July 12 with a landslide victory for Georgian Dream (GD) and signed a historical Association Agreement (AA) with the EU on June 27. Shortly after the polls, PM Irakli Gharibashvili reshuffled his cabinet to deliver “all of the promises pledged by GD” with double “energy, motivation and efficiency.” However, an event that received considerable attention both at home and internationally was the Tbilisi City Court’s August 2 order to place former president Mikheil Saakashvili in pre-trial detention.

On July 28, Georgian prosecutor’s office filed charges against Saakashvili related to the anti-government protests erupting on November 7, 2007, and the subsequent police raid on Imedi TV resulting in tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili’s loss of the TV station and other assets.

The prosecutor’s motion accused Saakashvili and then former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who is currently in jail, for deliberate use of excessive force aiming to intimidate protesters and prevent further rallies. The deployment of army units in central Tbilisi during the dispersal of the protest was also considered a violation of the law. On August 2, in compliance with the prosecutor’s claims, Tbilisi City Court ordered Saakashvili’s pre-trail detention in absentia.

Three days later, new criminal charges were filed in connection with an attack conducted in 2005 against then opposition MP Valeri Gelashvili, a businessman and a member of the Republican Party. Gelashvili was severely beaten up by masked, armed men shortly after an interview in which Gelashvili insulted the former president’s family and accused Saakashvili of confiscating his property. “Motivated by personal revenge,” Saakashvili commanded then Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to beat Gelashvili. As he refused to do so, Saakashvili handed over the task to Merabishvili who complied, the prosecutor’s motion claims.

The indictments against Saakashvili and Merabishvili were filed under part three of article 333 of the criminal code, which deals with excessive use of official powers committed by use of violence and insult of the victim’s dignity and envisages imprisonment from 5 to 8 years.

Saakashvili’s defense lawyer, Otar Kakhidze, termed the evidence presented by the prosecutors insufficient and as fabrications ultimately drawing on a witness testimony of then parliamentary chairperson Nino Burjanadze. Kakhidze submitted an appeal to the Tbilisi Court of Appeals in an attempt to reverse the court’s decision, though the latter found the complaint inadmissible.

In a statement published on August 1, a group of five NGOs called on the Georgian authorities to maintain transparency and accountability to avoid public and international perceptions of political retribution. The statement expressed suspicion over the fact that the criminal charges against Saakashvili were filed instantly after the latter failed to appear for questioning, casting doubts on the actual need to summon Saakashvili as a witness.

The decision on Saakashvili’s pre-trial detention drew criticism from the EU as well as the U.S. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said that “Georgian authorities deviate from the European path by using the justice system for revenge.” In the same fashion, the European People’s Party (EPP), a partner of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), stated that politically motivated actions pursued by the Georgian government means that it does not take the AA seriously. It was Saakashvili’s ongoing activities in Ukraine that incited charges against him, EPP said.

The U.S. Department of State and U.S. Senators also expressed concern and disappointment over the issue. A joint statement released by Republican Senators John McCain and Jim Risch says that perceptibly the ruling GD coalition systematically punishes their political opponents, imposing “unnecessary challenges in moving our relationship forward.”

The GD members and high-ranking government officials have dismissed Western criticism. MP Giorgi Volski disapproved the EPP statement assessing it as “factually incorrect and prejudicial.” PM Garibashvili called Bildt a representative of the “club of Saakashvili’s friends, who have certain obligations of friendship” and assured the public that Saakashvili’s case would have no effect on Georgia’s European integration process. The Swedish Foreign Minister was quick in responding that “if the Georgian PM does not want to listen to the best friends of his country in EU, that’s his choice. We take note.”

What became clear after Saakashvili’ indictment is that from the standpoint of the EU and U.S., the ruling coalition may have crossed a red line. Since GD came to power, EU and U.S. officials have repeatedly indicated that the coalition should move beyond past confrontations and focus on the future.

The episode is yet another indication that GD tends to prioritize narrow political interests over strategic national ones.

Published in Field Reports
Thursday, 14 August 2014 07:55

Russia Takes Steps to Absorb South Ossetia

By Valeriy Dzutsev (08/14/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Against the backdrop of the events in Ukraine, Moscow appears to take steps toward quietly incorporating the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia into Russia. The republican authorities announced that plans were under way for South Ossetia and Russia to establish a unified customs checkpoint at the border between the two countries. Russia is on a collision course with Georgia over the South Caucasian country’s recent signing of an Association Agreement with the EU. As South Ossetia is again becoming an important tool for Moscow’s policies in the South Caucasus, the Russian government appears intent on establishing even greater control over its satellite state in the region and using it against Georgia.

South Ossetia overview map

Published in Analytical Articles

By Carolin Funke (08/14/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) emerged as Georgia’s most respected and influential institution. It has played a significant role in the Georgian public sphere ever since and enjoys a high level of trust among the Georgian population. But as Georgia moves towards Euro-Atlantic integration, the GOC increasingly appears to develop into a political force. Recent statements by the clergy on Georgia’s municipal elections and the GOC’s active involvement against law-making and political processes intended to strengthen social and political pluralism raise concerns over its role in Georgia’s democratic development.

 rsz sameba cathedral night 2

Published in Analytical Articles

By Eka Janashia (08/05/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst) 

The Investigation Service of Georgia’s Ministry of Finance detained Gigi Ugulava, a former mayor of Tbilisi and election campaign chief of the opposition party United National Movement (UNM), at Tbilisi’s airport before boarding a flight to Kiev, on July 3. Ugulava’s arrest sparked apprehension ahead of the decisive second round of the local elections held on July 12.

On July 2, the Tbilisi City Court turned down the prosecution’s motion to prevent Ugulava from traveling to Ukraine by depriving him of his passport and ID card. Since Ugulava has traveled abroad several times and returned back to Georgia for the last two years, the court found it inadvisable to ban his trip. However, the Investigation Service justified the arrest with the “urgent need” to interrogate Ugulava.

Two days earlier, the Investigation Service revealed new criminal charges against Ugulava related to the misspending of public funds and abuse of authority during his term as mayor. In 2009 and 2011, Ugulava allegedly granted preferential treatment to the car parking company CT Park in the distribution of revenues garnered through fines that incurred misspending of around US$ 614,000 in budgetary funds.

After the arrest, Ugulava was incriminated with additional accusations of money laundering and hooliganism taking place at the Marneuli District Election Commission in early June.

Ugulava has purportedly received “black” money amounting to US$ 760,000 from an offshore registered company affiliated with the former Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili to fund UNM’s election campaign. In relation to the Marneuli incident, Ugulava was charged under articles 150 and 226 of the criminal code dealing with “coercion” and “organizing actions by a group which violate public order.”

Aside from the most recent indictments, Ugulava has already faced multiple criminal charges since February 2013. The allegations involve misspending and embezzlement of large amounts of public funds (around US$ 28.2 million) in 2011-2012. Although the court suspended Ugulava from the Tbilisi mayor’s office in 2013, it declined the prosecution’s motion for Ugulava’s pre-trial detention and freed him on bail. It was only on July 4, 2014 that the Tbilisi City Court eventually ruled in favor of the prosecution’s request and ordered pre-trial custody for Ugulava.

The court’s decision boosted the protests of UNM supporters rallying outside the court building. The dissent rapidly turned into a clash between police and activists. Several people were detained, including UNM lawmaker Levan Bezhashvili and former ambassador to Italy Kote Gabashvili for the administrative offense of petty hooliganism and disobeying police orders.

Ugulava’s defense lawyer appealed the decision at the Court of Appeals but the judge Giorgi Mirotadze considered the petition as irrelevant. UNM insisted that by this decision, Mirotadze, who became a judge in November 2013, approved to become one of the government’s favorite judges emerging within the judiciary since Georgian Dream came into power. Former PM David Bakradze said the UNM intends to submit Ugulava’s case to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

The U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, as well as the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they are deeply concerned with Ugulava’s arrest and will follow the case closely. Their concerns were particularly raised due to the cancelation of a moratorium declared by PM Irakli Garibashvili on April 14, when Garibashvili called on the law enforcement agencies to refrain from detentions or other sorts of legal restrictions against political figures involved in the election campaign.

The head of the EU Delegation to Georgia, Ambassador Philip Dimitrov, warned that signing the Association Agreement does not mean that “everything else, including the liberalization of the visa regime, should be considered to be guaranteed.” More overtly, the Vice President of the European People’s Party (EPP), Jacek Saryusz-Wolski appraised Ugulava’s arrest as “unfortunate development” and blamed Georgian authorities for “political retribution” conducted against Georgia’s main opposition and EPP member-party.

Conversely, PM Garibashvili assessed the court’s decision as a “celebration of justice” and welcomed the reinforced independence of the judiciary. In response, Ugulava wrote on his Facebook account that “prison and exile do not stop political processes.” At the court hearing he denied all charges against him as politically motivated and expressed his determination to continue the fight against the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvi’s regime.

Ugulava’s detention prior to the second round of the local polls not only discredited the moratorium policy, but also triggered expectations about a new wave of politically inspired prosecutions labeled a “restoration of justice.” Maintaining this sort of policy might seriously damage Georgia’s EU-integration course. 

Published in Field Reports

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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