Vendetta Politics in Georgia

Georgia is succumbing to a disease that plagues other post-Soviet countries: Newly elected leaders' urge to crack down on their predecessors.


MOSCOW —  Last night I got a call from friends in Georgia. They’re worried about the political situation in their country. This seems to be happening a lot lately.

Last week the authorities in Tbilisi issued orders for the arrest of Vano Merabishvili, a former prime minister who more recently was serving as the head of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s political party. (The officials behind the arrest answer to the government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the victor in last year’s parliamentary election and a convinced opponent of the president.)

Merabishvili’s detention is once again deepening the divide in Georgian society. Many Georgians are eager to see all former police and military officials, including President Saakashvili, behind bars. Others are just tired of political prosecutions and scandals. My friends sounded more frustrated than happy, and with good reason. Instead of reviving the economy and creating jobs as he promised, billionaire-turned-politician Ivanishvili now appears to be fixated on an unrelenting campaign of political revenge.

Just one year ago, Prime Minister Merabishvili was the second most influential man in the country: Saakhashvili described him as "the backbone" of Georgian politics. Merabishvili first became famous for cracking down on criminal bosses as minister of internal affairs in the years after the 2003 Rose revolution. He fired thousands of notoriously corrupt policemen and former KGB officers, built ministry buildings out of glass to symbolize transparency, and enshrined honesty as a guiding principle for the Georgian police. But none of those supporters who celebrated his reforms showed up on Tuesday, when the former reformer was ironically taken into custody on charges of embezzling public funds. Memory of Merabishvili’s reforms faded as his ministry gradually slipped back into abusing executive power. Just before the 2007 presidential election, Saakashvili lost his temper with the opposition and commanded Merabishvili to deploy the security forces against protestors and impose censorship on state-controlled media. (Some critics claimed that the minister of internal affairs had ordered police to beat demonstrators "mainly in the kindneys and the stomach.") The Imedi TV station, which supported the opposition, was forced off the air after police stormed its buildings. Experts said that Saakashvili had committed political suicide. But it was Merabishvili who implemented the president’s ideas.

But Saakashvili still struggled hard to prove his democratic credentials. Soon after the tumult of 2007 he announced a compromise, calling for early elections in January 2008. He won with 53.4 percent of votes, once again demonstrating his lasting popularity. A few months later, however, the newly elected president launched a war with South Ossetia and Russia; he later claimed that the conflict was unavoidable, blaming separatist Ossetians for killing too many Georgians along the border. As Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, people once again rallied around the president, the army, and the police. Merabishvili’s ministry was yet again the most popular in the country, earning high ratings from the World Bank for its reforms.

Since assuming power as prime minister, Ivanishvili has taken to describing the war as "a huge provocation planned by Saakashvili and his military chiefs" (the latter a reference to none other than Merabishvili). In an interview I conducted with him three months ago, Ivanishvili accused both president Saakashvili and his ally Merabishvili of large-scale corruption and abuse of power. It was clear that arrests would soon follow. Immediately after last year’s Ivanshvili election victory, hundreds of Saakashvili’s supporters lost their jobs in the police and in other ministries.

Leaders in former Soviet countries are known for their vendettas against their political predecessors. Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, expelled and imprisoned many opponents after he came to power in 1994. In Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych insisted during his 2010 campaign that his first priority, if he won, would be to integrate Ukraine into the European Union. Upon his election, however, he promptly set about jailing political opponents. These days Yanukovych spends much of his time explaining to Brussels why his government threw his main political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, into prison for seven years. (She finished a close second to Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election.) The Europeans see his decision to lock up Tymoshenko as an act of political vengeance. Yanukovych’s move to jail her has undermined his promise to put Ukraine on a path to E.U. membership.

Right after Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin as president last spring, Russian prosecutors started investigating the organizers of the anti-Putin street rallies that took place during the election campaign. Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader famous for coining the slogan "Putin is a thief," has been on trial for almost a month now; prosecutors are demanding a sentence of 10 years in jail for alleged embezzlement.

Was Navalny a serious threat? According to polls conducted by the independent Levada Center, Navalny’s name recognition among the Russian population stood at 14 percent as of April 2013. The Levada Center further reported that unpopular new laws targeting Russian civil society groups and clamping down on a growing opposition have caused Vladimir Putin’s approval rating to shrink to 27 percent. The study provoked a strong reaction from the authorities. This week prosecutors said that the Levada Center had violated a new law on the registration of foreign agents. Those allegations mean that there’s a distinct possibility that Russia’s last major independent pollster could be facing closure.

Georgia’s Ivanishvili didn’t wait long to mirror the style practiced by most of his neighboring fellow leaders.  Experts say that Ivanishvili opted to put Merabishvili in jail in order to weaken the opposition. "Instead of compromising and letting a healthy opposition party exist, Ivanishvili chose to wage a vendetta, diminishing the chance for Georgia to develop into a balanced democratic state," says Gia Nodia, an independent Georgian analyst. He says that Ivanishvili’s next target is likely to be Tbilisi mayor Gig Ugulava, another leading figure in Saakashvili’s political movement.

"[Ivanishvili] has started by repressing people, and I’m afraid that he’s going to take an anti-western, isolationist course," my friend Lika told me on the phone. "Investors will all run away from Georgia." She still
hopes that the billionaire leader will work to revive her country’s economy.

But the latest news is not encouraging. In polls released by the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. pro-democracy organization, 72 percent of respondents reported themselves as unemployed, up five percent from just a few months earlier. Terrifying scenes of violence took place in Lika’s neighborhood in downtown Tbilisi last week, when thousands of alleged defenders of the Georgian Orthodox Church attacked a handful of gay activists at an officially permitted gay pride rally. Police did not manage to protect the activists: 17 were injured despite a message from Prime Minister Ivanishvili reminding law enforcement officials that sexual minorities are entitled to the same rights as other groups. The attacks on the activists were not the result of pure homophobia, says analyst Nodia: "What happened last Friday is a sign that social tensions are growing. Political repression might push Georgia into a long-term civil war." Let’s hope he’s wrong.

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