Georgia’s Dilemma: Former President Saakashvili Arrested in absentia

By Marysia Radziejowska and Konrad Zasztowt

Konrad Zasztowt is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs specializing in Turkey, South Caucasus and Central Asia regions. Previously, he worked at the Polish National Security Bureau (2008 – 2010), where he monitored  international security issues in the Black Sea and Caspian regions. He received his doctoral degree from the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Warsaw (2012) and is a graduate of the University’s Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology and East European Studies.

Mikheil Saakashvili , Brooklyn, NY (Photo source: New York Times)

The Georgian Prosecutor’s office announced on 28 August 2014 that it has filed charges against former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili. This raised concerns in the European Union and the U.S., where he has a reputation as the author of police and anti-corruption reforms in Georgia. But in his own country, he is perceived by many as an authoritarian politician.

On 2 August, Tbilisi City Court accepted the request of the Georgian Prosecutor’s office to arrest in absentia Mikheil Saakashvili and scheduled the first sitting of the court for 22 September. On 5 August, the Tbilisi Court of Appeals rejected an appeal submitted by Saakashvili’s Defence against this decision as being inadmissible (Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association offers a detailed analysis of this decision here). The charges against the former president include alleged abuses of power in November 2007 during street protests in the capital, take over the office of private TV station, Imedi, assaults on his political opponents and misusing funds (about $ 5 million) from the budget of the Special State Protection Service for personal luxury expenses. Earlier this month, the Court of Appeal in Tbilisi upheld the ruling to impound  property owned by Saakashvili and his family, ranging from a vineyard in Kvareli to his grandmother’s Toyota RAV4.

Saakashvili now lives abroad. Last January, he joined the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University as “Senior Statesman” and lecturer. He seems to have no intention to stand trial in Tbilisi and stresses that the charges against him are purely political. He also points to the international context of the case, claiming that the prosecution in Georgia is controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister who is still the informal leader of the Georgian Dream ruling coalition and who has strong ties to Russia’s business and political elite. According to Saakashvili, the charges against him reflect Ivanishvili’s dependency on Russia. For “propaganda reasons”, as Saakashvili insists, the Kremlin is interested in a conviction of Moscow’s chief adversary in the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008.

The charges against Saakashvili indeed may serve Russian propaganda efforts, portraying him as the main culprit of the August war in South Ossetia. Confirmation of the acts of the former Georgian president as  “criminal” in the event of a conviction, would be a success for the Kremlin. However, one cannot assume that the actions of the Georgian government and the prosecution are inspired by Russia. Though Saakashvili presents Georgian Dream as a pro-Russian party, there is no hard evidence to support the claim. The current policy of the governing party, bringing Georgia into closer association with the EU, in fact contradict such criticism.

Georgian Dream’s Reforms and Saakashvili’s Legacy

During Saakashvili’s time in office, his United National Movement (UNM) carried out successful reforms of the police, eradicated widespread corruption and helped Georgia to become a state that is friendly to foreign investors. However, the success of UNM’s reforms was also accompanied by alleged violations of human rights and appropriation of the state by the ruling elite (see here, here or here ). In October 2012, Georgian Dream, created by Ivanishvili, won the parliamentary elections. In part due to society’s fatigue with the authoritarian practices of UNM, including the social outrage prompted in September 2012 by disclosure of a video showing graphic images of guards mistreating inmates in Georgian prisons. The current government is trying to maintain public support, among other, by stressing the issue of bringing to account their predecessors for alleged abuses of power. However, this process was initiated after Georgian Dream took power in 2012, and since then its targets have included former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, who was sentenced last February to five years in prison for abuse of power, including the use of budgetary resources for the purposes of UNM’s election campaign.

International Reaction

The announcing of the charges against Saakashvili was met with criticism from the EU and the United States. The U.S. State Department issued statements in which it emphasized that justice should not be a “tool of political retribution” (see here and here). Similarly, the office of the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton expressed concerns and indicated that the activities of the Georgian prosecutor’s office should not be politically motivated and that the authorities in Tbilisi should move beyond conflicts of the past and focus on future challenges.

Maintaining a stable internal situation and the continuation of reforms in Georgia are in the interests of the EU. Georgia is one of the better examples of effective transformation, free market reforms and the prevailing democratic standards found among the members of the EU’s Eastern Partnership. Since 2008, Brussels has supported reform of the justice system in Georgia. In June this year, the partnership entered another level with the signing of the Association Agreement between the EU and Tbilisi. Further reforms are ahead. In 2014 alone, the EU allocated €50 million to strengthen the independence, professionalism, impartiality and efficiency of the judiciary, as well as to increase access to the justice system and the right to a fair trial.

In order to gain more credibility for its actions against Saakashvili, the Georgian prosecutor’s office announced on 24 July that they had invited a group of international lawyers to assist in  “politically sensitive” cases as advisers: Sir Geoffrey Nice, deputy prosecutor at the trial of former Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Moshe Lador, the prosecutor who took on former President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, former PM Ehud Olmert, and Paul Coffey, former director of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and a former chief of the Organized Crime and Racketeering section of the U.S. Department of Justice. However, since this one-off declaration, there has been no further information about the involvement or the role of these experts.

Conclusions

The EU’s proposal for Tbilisi to focus on future challenges de facto means abandoning attempts to bring accountability for alleged abuses of power during Saakashvili’s presidency. In the long run, this will not necessarily be a favourable solution for Georgian democracy. The Human Rights Committee in its latest report concerning Georgia (CCPR/C/GEO/CO/4) noted that the proceedings “might create the appearance of the utilisation of the legal system for political retribution purposes”. At the same time, however, it acknowledged that Georgia should pursue the investigation into past abuses and expressed its concern that investigations into the alleged violations from before 2012 are still pending.

The attempts to bring to account those responsible for violations from the times Saakashvili was in office play an important role in the current  government’s political struggle against the opposition. On the other hand, considering the ongoing transformation process in Georgia, the notion that the country should reckon with previous abuses of power should not be considered unequivocally negative, if done in a transparent, fair and impartial manner.

The risk that the new authorities will exploit the justice system against Saakashvili’s party for their own political gain seems to be limited by several factors: a much stronger civil society, especially since 2012; increased pluralism in the media; and the fact that UNM is still a strong faction in parliament. The current situation can be described as a state of balance between the institutions and their relative autonomy. The political system, which is more democratic than it was before 2012, prevents Georgian Dream from manually controlling proceedings against its political opponents. However, the risk of such influence remains.

The case against Saakashvili, as well as those against others in his administration, have certainly had a negative impact on the image of the government in Tbilisi abroad. Therefore, the authorities in Georgia are facing the challenge of making their intentions credible in the eyes of the international community, so as to refute criticism claiming that the proceedings are driven purely by political objectives.

Adopting a clear strategy on bringing to justice some representatives of the former government could help ward off accusations of selective, politically motivated justice. Considering the existing deficiencies in Georgia’s justice system (see the reports by the EU pointing to, among other things, the lack of investigative skills of prosecutors, lack of accountability of the prosecutor’s office and the need to further increase judicial independence), the move to incorporate the assistance of international experts in the proceedings seems to be wise. It would be advisable, however, to ensure that participation of such international experts is based on detailed, clear and transparent terms. Finally, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE has already been involved in monitoring trials of high-ranking members of the previous government. Georgian authorities could adopt similar solutions to ensure that proceedings against Saakashvili and others are conducted in a fair and transparent manner and in line with the principle of political neutrality. Provided that this happens, the proceedings that gave rise to concerns in the West could end up assisting Georgia in completing its full transformation into a democratic state underpinned by the rule of law.

This post is partly based on a Bulletin no 111 (706) published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs on 1 September 2014.

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