Georgia's ex-president stands accused of abusing his power. His friends in the West should let the law run its course.
- By Lincoln MitchellLincoln Mitchell is an associate research scholar at Columbia University's Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He Tweets at @lincolnmitchell. Mitchell consulted for the Georgian Dream coalition in the run-up to the 2012 elections.
Sen. John McCain and others in Washington are attempting to bully an ally. In late July, the Georgian government announced that it is seeking to prosecute former President Mikheil Saakashvili for serious crimes and human rights violations, including abuse of power and assault. The abuses are well documented, and addressing them will help Georgia move forward into a new era of democratic liberty, but the case poses a significant challenge to Saakashvili’s long-time supporters in the West. These old allies are quick to dismiss the charges as politically motivated, and a number of U.S. senators, including McCain, have issued a statement warning the Georgian government that the charges could threaten U.S.-Georgia relations. But true supporters of Georgia’s democracy would see the trial as a reasonable, if controversial, attempt to address the widespread injustices of the Saakashvili era.
Ever since the new Georgian government swept the October 2012 parliamentary election, it has been pressed by the frustrated Georgian public to address the former president’s troubled legacy. Saakashvili took office after Georgia’s Rose Revolution, during which he rose as a defender of democracy, equal political participation, and human rights. His anti-Russian rhetoric, crusades against low-level corruption, and polyglot media presence made him a well-known and dynamic figure throughout Western capitals.
But as time went on, Saakashvili’s presidency grew more authoritarian. Georgia became increasingly repressive state where opposition activists were harassed; surveillance was widespread; media, particularly outside the capital, was heavily biased toward the state; and a climate of state sponsored hyper-nationalism meant that any critic of the government, domestic or foreign, was likely to be called a Russian stooge. In 2005, Saakashvili allegedly ordered an assault on a political opponent, Valeri Gelashvili, a member of parliament who had made statements highly critical of the president. Then, in late 2007, Saakashvili ordered the violent dispersion of peaceful demonstrators and the destruction of the office of Imedi TV, an independent television station in Tbilisi. In the days before the 2012 parliamentary election, Georgia was rocked by a major prison scandal showing that prisoners had been violently abused by prison guards and others and that this abuse had been widespread in the Georgian prisons. This was no small event in a country that by then had one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. The scandal, which broke only weeks before the election cost Saakashvili’s party whatever chance of victory they might have had. Anger about the prison abuse scandal remains one of the primary reasons many Georgians are demanding justice for the leaders of the previous government.
Nevertheless, Saakashvili’s powerful friends happily looked beyond the excesses and authoritarian tendencies of his regime. These acts of repression were barely noticed or commented upon in Washington, despite loud uproars from international human rights NGOs and the Georgian people.
The prosecutor’s office has gathered evidence suggesting Saakashvili’s complicity in abuses of power, violently cracking down on demonstrations, and other improprieties. A majority of the Georgian people who lived through his reign has deep anger towards Saakashvili and has been calling for justice. But Georgia’s Western allies, most notably the United States, were adamantly opposed to any prosecution of Saakashvili. Charging Saakashvili led to an inevitable backlash in Western capitals, particularly among right wing political parties, but leaving Saakashvili alone would have sent a message domestically that some people are above the law. Georgia’s government essentially had to choose between domestic political needs and keeping their foreign allies satisfied. Ultimately, Georgia chose rule of law over the preferences of its foreign supporters.
Until the trial, Saakashvili’s guilt is up for debate, but there is clearly enough evidence to warrant a trial. On the U.S. side, the politics are more complicated. On the same day the charges were filed, several U.S. senators, including John McCain (R-AZ), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and James Risch (R-ID), released a statement accusing Georgia, a strong U.S. ally, of placing revenge over justice, and suggested that the decision to charge Saakashvili could jeopardize U.S.-Georgia relations. Georgia continues to need the United States to help ensure that Russian aggression of the kind seen in the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, and occurring currently in Ukraine, does not destabilize the country, and, given recent events in the Middle East and Nagorno-Karabakh, the United States benefits from having Georgia as a staunch ally and supporter in what is an increasingly tumultuous region. (The photo above shows Saakashvili’s visit to Kiev’s Maidan in December.)
Significantly, the U.S. senators’ statements have been polarizing in Georgia, providing succor and comfort for remaining Saakashvili loyalists, while raising concerns among others in Georgia that the West continues believe that whatever is good for Saakashvili is also good for Georgia.
Instead of jeopardizing an important political relationship, Saakashvili’s Western supporters would do well to reconsider their unwavering support of a considerably less-than-perfect president. Saakashvili said all the right things in English, and they believed him to be a true democrat — but he was also capable of abusing power, using violence, and authoritarian behavior, as history has shown. Recognizing this mistake is not something politicians are likely to do. It is much easier to accuse Georgia’s new government of being vengeful and looking backwards. But in doing this, these Americans and others — like the leadership of the conservative European People’s Party — are damaging Georgian democracy.
Georgians today are seeking to address complicated issues of rule of law and justice. They are trying to balance a desire to move forward with a need for closure and a desire to set a precedent that such violations will not be tolerated in the future. The decision to press charges against the former president was not an easy one — and given the international reaction, it might not have been the right diplomatic choice — but it was made with good reason. Georgia’s friends should understand these motives and encourage the government to live up to the highest standards of due process.
Clarification, August 8, 2014: The author of this article, Lincoln Mitchell, consulted for the Georgian Dream coalition in the run-up to the 2012 elections. The previous version of this article did not make that association clear.