For the political and social life of Georgia, the month of May proved to be overloaded with developments and emotions. Among these, the one that resonated the most were the arrests of the Secretary General of the United National Movement (UNM), Vano Merabishvili, and the Governor of the Kakheti Region, Zurab Chiaberashvili. This is not the first instance of former senior officials having been arrested since the new government came to power in October 2012, however, this bold move by the prosecutor's office certainly attracts additional interest against the backdrop of, and in relation to, the events that unfolded in May.
Vano Merabishvili and Zurab Chiaberashvili were detained on 21 May. The next day, the Kutaisi city court released Chiaberashvili on bail of 20,000 GEL, but remanded Merabishvili in pretrial custody. They both pleaded not guilty.
The former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, who also served as interior minister, was charged with several counts: abuse of power, voter bribery, embezzlement and misappropriation of the private property of others. Chiaberashvili was charged on just one count – the involvement in voter bribery whilst serving as the minister of labor, health and social assistance.
The UNM regards the arrest of its secretary general as politically motivated, related to the political persecution that started after the parliamentary elections of October last year.
"Here it is not any specific action that is being put on trial, but it is Georgia's recent history that is on trial; our successful efforts are being put on trial, those things we implemented after the Rose Revolution in order to create a modern state in a place where many could hardly imagine that would have been possible... We are setting a precedent that the peaceful and democratic transfer of power proves very dangerous for those transferring power because it is followed by spite, envy and retaliation," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said.
The secretary of the National Security Council, the mayor of Tbilisi and representatives of the parliamentary minority explained the detention of Merabishvili and Chiaberashvili as an attempt of the prime minister to quash his opponents.
"For years, Georgia has served as a model of democracy and freedom in a difficult region. I am deeply concerned about what appears to be the politically motivated arrests of former Georgian Prime Minister and current head of the opposition Vano Merabishvili... In the run-up to Georgia's presidential election in October, it is important that the Georgian government not resort to such tactics and other efforts to intimidate the opposition."
US Senator Marco Rubio (Florida). 24 May.
"Deeply concerned by intimidation of Georgian opposition. President of the United States should condemn and urge new government of Georgia to follow rule of law."
US Senator Mark Steven Kirk (Illinois) over Twitter. 24 May.
"The arrest and detention of former senior Georgian officials as well as the unbalanced number of prosecutions against members of the opposition party, have deepened our unease and are cause for concern."
US Senators Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) and James Risch (Idaho). 24 May.
"Putting your political opponents behind bars will not help solve any problems, on the contrary, it will create new ones."
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's Special Representative on the South Caucasus Joao Soares. 23 May.
For his part, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili discards the accusations of political persecution as unfounded and asserts that nothing of the kind has happened. Ivanishvili even welcomed the statements issued on the arrest of Merabishvili by the international community and the European Union, noting that their attention towards Georgia will help ensure that the legal proceedings are conducted fairly.
Just as it did following the earlier instances of the detention of former officials, the international community called on the Georgian government to conduct the legal proceedings in a transparent way and to exclude political motives.
In a statement released on 22 May, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, and the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, underlined their expectation "that the Georgian authorities will pursue justice in these cases, as in all other cases, impartially and free from political motivation."
Patrick Ventrell, the acting deputy spokesperson of the US Department of State, expressed the official position of Washington on May 22, saying: "We have stressed to the Georgian Government the importance of conducting such investigations and prosecutions with full respect for due process and avoiding the perception or reality of political retribution. The United States encourages all political actors to continue to work together constructively toward the shared goal of advancing Georgia's democratic and economic development and Euro-Atlantic integration."
The European People's Party (EPP) also issued a statement on the arrests of 22 May. According to the EPP President Wilfried Martens, the arrests are a very serious setback for Georgian democracy.
"I hope that the judges will be able to take independent and impartial decisions. However, the constant public accusations and blackmail made by representatives of the Georgian Dream government – and the fact that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has publicly admitted that there is a connection between the ongoing cases against the UNM leaders and the level of criticism expressed by the opposition – lead me to believe that yesterday's arrests are only a new stage in the government's ambition to eliminate the opposition. If these arrests prove to be politically motivated, it may result in the freezing of Georgia's Association Agreement process," Martens said.Irrespective of how strong the prosecutor's arguments are, or how procedurally correctly the arrests were conducted, it is obvious that neither the government nor the state would have been able to escape the political context and consequences of this move. The political connotations of the step are amplified by those possible "benefits" that the government receives by arresting Merabishvili. In this regard, it is important to consider the general setting and time period in which the former prime minister was arrested.
The arrest of Merabishvili was preceded by one of the most significant events in Georgia since the change of power last October. On 17 May a peaceful protest against homophobia was violently thwarted by participants of a large and aggressive counter-rally that also involved members of the clergy. Law enforcement agencies were criticized for inadequately planning their operations on that day. Many evaluated the incident as illustration of the inability of the state.
The state found itself in a difficult situation: it came under scathing criticism from civil society and international organizations, and yet ultimately only charged two religious servants. The leniency of the charges has been questioned, but considering the attitude of a large segment of society towards the Church and its representatives, one may assume that even this step taken by the government will not be welcomed by those groups.
Given that the participants of the events of 17 May were representatives of that segment of society who share anti-liberal and anti-Western values and that the Georgian Dream coalition, comprising politicians entertaining different opinions, came to power with, inter alia, the support of these people, it is no surprise that the government will find it difficult to ignore this segment of society.
The violence of 17 May was also addressed, among others, to Bidzina Ivanishvili. Just days before the rally, the prime minister and some of his team members made clear statements about the protection of LGBT rights. Ivanishvili underlined that representatives of sexual minorities are fully-fledged members of society and that law enforcers will ensure their freedom of expression as they would that of any other. The aggressive actions of the anti-liberal masses and the statements made by religious servants from their pulpits can be viewed as a message from those groups irritated by the statements of Ivanishvili's government – a sort of warning to "mind whom you are protecting and whose opinions you take into account."
The arrest of an influential political figure after the inadequate display of 17 May gives the government a good possibility to demonstrate its power. Moreover, the arrest will be handy in consoling those supporters, both in the coalition and in society, who felt unhappy with the government's earlier statements in favour of LGBT rights. This is something that the Georgian Dream needs, especially in light of the upcoming presidential elections.
According to public opinion polls, the ratings of Ivanishvili and his political team are not jeopardized at this stage. However, the presidential candidate of the coalition, the education minister and vice premier, Giorgi Margvelashvili, is amongst those ministers in the current cabinet who have the lowest approval ratings. The results of a public opinion survey conducted by the US National Democratic Institute (NDI) in March show 29% approval of the performance of Margvelashvili, which is much lower than the ratings of other ministers. This, in turn, raises the chances for the UNM; even though, in Bidzina Ivanishvili's opinion, the UNM will not receive even 10% of the votes and, if candidates from other parties run in the election, the UMN will come in at last place.
Moreover, in the interim parliamentary elections held in late April 2013, a single-seat candidate from the Georgian Dream in one of Tbilisi's districts received less than 40% of the vote. Consequently, it is not guaranteed that anti-liberal voters will not cast their ballots for other candidates, thus leaving the Georgian Dream candidate having to participate in a runoff. In such a situation, the ruling party needs to neutralize the estrangement of that segment of the electorate. To this end, the arrest of Vano Merabishvili is not an inadequate move at all, especially considering that the day before his arrest, representatives of that anti-liberal segment held a forum under the slogan "The Regime Must Be Put on Trial."
Yet another side effect of the move is something that representatives of the opposition have repeatedly talked about – the creation of such an atmosphere for UNM members that will make it easier for the Georgian Dream to lure them into switching sides. The Georgian Dream lacks just three seats to have a constitutional majority in parliament. The ruling party has already announced that it intends to set up a constitutional commission by the end of May. According to the speaker of parliament, Davit Usupashvili, several significant amendments to the constitution may be initiated before the new constitution comes into force after the presidential elections. In particular, according to the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Legal Issues, Vakhtang Khmaladze, one of the problematic issues for constitutional change is the quorum required: the ruling party believes that the quorum must be kept at its current composition of two-thirds of parliament, that is 100 deputies, instead of the three-fourths, or 113 deputies, as envisaged in the new constitution. Yet another issue is the distribution of power between the prime minister and parliament. Consequently, the Georgian Dream fear that they need to hunt for these additional three votes.
In the broader context, however, it would be a mistake not to view the arrest of Merabishvili as part of the declared process of "reinstating justice." The perception of this process being politically motivated has also been supported by the statements of Bidzina Ivanishvili that the opposition needs to change its methods of reasoning and retune its rhetoric; their doing so, he believes, would shorten the length of the "queues at the prosecutor's office."
Critics of the current government often draw parallels with Ukraine. In Ukraine, after President Yanukovich came to power, his political opponents were arrested on the premise of "reinstating justice." This created problems and the European Union started demanding fair and transparent legal proceedings. As a result, Ukraine's signing of the association and free trade agreements was postponed for an indefinite period of time; the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on the issuance of 15 billion USD of aid to Ukraine was suspended; and the issue of the country's integration into NATO was taken off the agenda altogether. It is worth noting that some thawing of the country's frozen relations with the European Union started to be observed only after the Ukrainian president released the former interior minister, Yuriy Lutsenko, from prison – doing so just months ahead of the scheduled EU summit in Vilnius in November, at which the EU intends to take new steps with the countries of the Eastern Partnership. In Ukraine the EU has thus extended its observation mission and will continue its monitoring until September.
Apart from the political and economic effects of Merabishvili's arrest, a negative consequence may also be further aggravation of the existing climate in Georgia. The signs of a darker climate have already been seen – the persecution of sexual minorities, the release of video footage featuring the private life of a reporter and the beating of UNM MPs in a restaurant are just few of the troubling developments that took place in May.