Georgian Dream

The First Steps of Their Administrations

Dimitri Avaliani
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The situations in which the United National Movement (UNM) and the Georgian Dream coalition came to power were different. At the outset of their administrations both parties faced different challenges and each set different priorities for their governments. However, they also had some common objectives and directions, including the legal persecution of former government representatives. One can see similarities as well as differences in the methods employed by both the former and the current authorities to achieve that end.

In fact, the first steps taken by the Georgian Dream after taking over government were the arrests of former high officials. As early as 6 November, the former defense minister Bacho Akhalaia, having voluntarily arrived for questioning, was arrested on charges of abusing power. The very next early morning, the then-Head of the Joint Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces, Brigadier-General Giorgi Kalandadze and the commander of the Fourth Brigade Zurab Shamatava were taken into custody. Shortly thereafter, the former justice minister, Zurab Adeishvili, was put on a wanted list for the charges of the abuse of power and organizing the torture of inmates with the aim of filming the notorious prison videos. The former defense minister, Davit Kezerashvili, was also declared wanted.

Among the detainees were the Deputy Mayor of Tbilisi Shota Khizanishvili and the director general of the Rustavi 2 TV company Nika Gvaramia. Criminal proceedings were also instituted on various counts against Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, who was summoned for questioning.

On 21 May, the former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili and the former health minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, having appeared before the prosecutor's office for questioning, were arrested on charges of embezzling public monies, voter bribery and misappropriating the property of others. The next day, the court took the decision to remand Merabishvili in pretrial custody whilst releasing Chiaberashvili on bail.

The trial of former Chairman of Chamber of Control Sulkhan Molashvili Photo: Reuters
Soon after coming to power on the wave of the Rose Revolution, the previous government also started the persecution of former public officials and people close to them. As early as December 2003, the former governor of the Kvemo Kartli region, Levan Mamaladze, was wanted on charges of misappropriating gold from a gold mining enterprise and extorting property. The former energy minister Davit Mirtskhulava, as well as the president of the football federation Merab Jordania, were also arrested for abuse of power in December. The latter was released one month later after paying 742,000 GEL which, according to the investigation, he misappropriated.

In January-February 2004, the former head of the Georgian Railways company Akaki Chkhaidze and the minister of transport and communications Merab Adeishvili, the latter of whom had kept his job after the revolution, were detained. Law enforcement officers also arrested Eduard Shevardnadze's son-in-law and president of the mobile phone operator Magticom, Gia Jokhtaberidze, in the airport as he was about to leave the country.

In March and April 2004, the arrests of the former head and the deputy head of the tax department, the former head of the customs department, as well as the former head of the civil aviation department took place. The former officials were, as a rule, charged with the same counts – damage to the state budget and the abuse of official powers. The majority of them were released after having paid sums of money to the state budget.

Almost every detained official from Shevardnadze's government claimed that they were victims of political persecution.

One similarity between the activities of the former and the current government of arresting former officials upon coming to power is that, to some extent, both were fulfilling the mandate of their voters.
However, the objectives of the two governments differed: while the UNM government was interested in recovering the money embezzled by corrupt officials in favor of the state budget; the government of the Georgian Dream, on the other hand, seems, first and foremost, to care about satisfying the interests of the ruling party or Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili personally. The proof of this is the arrest of the Chief of the Joint Staff whom, upon coming to power, the Georgian Dream wanted to replace, but failed to do so because the appointment or dismissal of the Chief of the Joint Staff was the prerogative of the president. Other cases the new government started to investigate as a priority also prove that supposition. These cases include the illegal seizure of surreptitious audio recordings of Georgian Dream members and personal information about Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the attempts to artificially bankrupt Cartu Bank, which is owned by Ivanishvili.

However, over the seven months since the new government took over the reins of power, with the exception of the cases of Akhalaia and Kalandadze, which are now being heard, the investigations have failed to bring any other case involving former high officials to court.

In contrast to the current authorities, the UNM government did not arrest acting political figures. Consequently, the arrests of former public officials did not cause as much criticism from Georgia's Western partners as did the "reinstatement of justice" by Ivanishvili's government.

In November-December 2012, concerns about the arrests of former officials were expressed by the NATO Secretary General, top officials of the European Union and the US State Department. The US senators Jeanne Shaneen, Joseph Lieberman, James E. Risch, Lindsey O. Graham and John McCain published a letter expressing their concern over an interview with the Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze that was published in the international edition of Foreign Policy in which Panjikidze referred to former senior officials as "criminals."

The trial of former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia. Photo: Reuters
At a German Marshall Fund meeting in Washington D.C. Panjikidze was criticized by diplomats, experts and journalists. The Georgian government was warned against following the example of the Ukrainian government that arrested former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko. The West considered those arrests to be politically motivated and demanded that they be released. After his visit to Tbilisi in December 2012, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt declared that the persecution of political opponents may have dire consequences for the country and expressed hope that Georgia would learn from the mistakes of Ukraine.

On the other hand, one difference between the incumbent and the former government is that the court now largely applies non-custodial measures against former senior officials, releasing them on bail.
Yet another plan which the Ivanishvili government began to fulfil upon coming to power was "sorting out" relations with Russia. The first step in this direction was the introduction of the post of the prime minister's special representative for relations with Russia.

Bidzina Ivanishvili appointed the former Georgian ambassador to Russia and NATO, Zurab Abashidze, as his special representative for relations with Russia on 1 November. Ivanishvili declared that relations with Russia should start from a "clean slate."

Interestingly, on 2 December 2003, within days of the Rose Revolution, the acting president of Georgia, Nino Burjanadze, also declared that Georgia was ready to start relations with Russia with a "clean slate" provided that the relationship would be treated as one between equals.

Similar to Ivanishvili's government, the former government also opted for reconciliatory rhetoric with Moscow in the beginning, often placing the blame for the tense relations between the two countries on its predecessor. Back then there was something of an illusion in Tbilisi that Russia's hostile politics towards Georgia were caused by the attitude of Russian conservative circles towards Shevardnadze, whom they blamed for the break up of the Soviet Union – just as the current government believes that Russian aggression was caused by President Saakashvili's hostile rhetoric and his "rising to the bait" and that, after the change of power, relations can be improved...

However, the challenges related to Russia faced by Georgia in 2004 and 2013 differed. The key objectives of Mikheil Saakashvili's government back then were to have Russian military bases pull out of Georgia and to negotiate the settlement of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali conflicts with Moscow. In the first half of 2004, the government still had the feeling that Georgia would be able to overturn the Kremlin's policies.

Despite Georgia's peaceful rhetoric, Moscow continued its support of the separatist regimes in Abkhazia, the Tskhinvali region as well as that of Aslan Abashidze in Adjara. On 9 December 2003, without Tbilisi providing any provocation, Moscow declared that it was establishing visa free travel with Adjara, similar to that which then existed with Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. That raised concerns in the Georgian government.
Over that period, Tbilisi received mixed messages from Moscow. During a call-in show on 18 December 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he recognized the territorial integrity of Georgia. Within days of that TV show, however, Putin's advisor, Sergei Yastrzemski, accused Georgia of sheltering terrorists.

Moreover, the Russian foreign office placed the responsibility for tensions between Tbilisi and Batumi entirely on Tbilisi, accusing it of staging provocations.

As regards the withdrawal of Russian military bases, Russian senior officials were proposing unacceptable terms for the pullout – suggesting a period of seven to eleven years for the withdrawal.

Nevertheless, on 29 January 2004, in his speech to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, Mikheil Saakashvili said: "I extended my hand to Russia as an expression of my desire to build new relations between our countries, with positive outcomes for Georgia and Russia that take into consideration our legitimate economic and security interests."

On 10 February 2004, President Saakashvili paid his first official visit to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart. The exceptionally friendly tone of the meeting raised hopes in Tbilisi about a breakthrough in the relationship between the two countries. As Saakashvili said, the hand of friendship which he extended to Putin did not remain hanging in the air and, in contrast to Shevardnadze, he had no problems with his Russian counterpart. Saakashvili invited Putin to visit Georgia in autumn. The two sides also agreed to sign a framework agreement.

In February of the same year, Georgia recalled its veto on Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization.

The crisis in Adjara in late April/early May 2004, created some tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow, but after the fall of the Abashidze regime, the "honeymoon" between the two countries resumed.
In late May 2004, the Georgian government held a business forum in Tbilisi that was attended by the Russian minister of economic development and trade, German Gref, and a great number of Russian businessmen. Mikheil Saakashvili called on them to invest in Georgia, saying that business had no nationality.

The President of Georgia pays his first official visit to Russia. Photo: Reuters
Tensions between the two countries started rising after the situation around Tskhinvali was aggravated in July 2004. These tensions culminated in the war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008.
Bidzina Ivanishvili's rhetoric towards Moscow was reconciliatory from the very first day of his entering Georgian politics. He declared that he did not intend to compromise on the issue of territorial integrity. At the same time, Ivanishvili pledged to return Georgian products to the Russian market.

One of results of the negotiations of Zurab Abashidze, the newly-appointed special representative for relations with Russia, was the visit of Russian experts to inspect enterprises producing Georgian wines and mineral waters. The chief sanitary inspector of Russia, Gennadiy Onishchenko, lifted the ban on the import of Georgian mineral waters to Russia in May 2013. The issue of alcoholic drinks is still under consideration.
In return, Ivanishvili's government took several steps which clearly suited the interests of Russia. Namely, the government declared that it was launching an inquiry into the 2008 war and, in such a context, implied establishing blame on the former government. Moreover, Ivanishvili did not rule out that North Caucasian terrorists were trained during the rule of the previous government and that that too would become a topic of investigation. He also spoke in favor of resuming the railway link via Abkhazia. On top of that, the Georgian parliament started debating a softening of the Law on Occupied Territories.

Similar to the UNM, upon coming to power the Georgian Dream started seeking ways of settling relations with Russia. However, back then Saakashvili's government did not turn the issue of the country's sovereignty into a bargaining chip.

As for relations with Georgia's Western partners, Saakashvili's government was quite active in this regard. In December 2003, the US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid a visit to Georgia. In January 2004, after being elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili declared integration into the Euro-Atlantic space and a partnership with the US as his priorities.

Within a month of his inauguration, on 25 February, Saakashvili met with President George W. Bush in Washington. Bush hailed the Rose Revolution as an example for other nations and pledged his support to Tbilisi.

Bidzina Ivanishvili's first foreign visit in the capacity of prime minister was to Brussels. Alike the former government, he identified Euro-Atlantic integration as his priority. As regards his visiting the United States, something that he had initially announced would occur shortly after the October elections, this has been postponed for an indefinite period of time. That postponement coincided with the criticism the new government received for the arrests of its political opponents. Ivanishvili himself explained the postponement of his US visit by saying he was very busy. The date of the prime minister's visiting the US is still unknown.

In terms of the economic policy of the country, the first steps taken by the former government were inconsistent. In December 2003, the provisional government announced the introduction, from July 2004, of a tax on conspicuous consumption to be levied on luxurious cars, immovable property and the like. However, it later discarded that idea.

The UNM's economic policy acquired its final shape after the appointment of Kakha Bendukidze as the minister of the economy in June 2004. In late June it became known that the 21 taxes then in place would be cut to nine, whilst the rates of the remaining taxes would also be reduced.

The Georgian Dream, which initially criticized the economic policy of the former government, finally had no other choice but to acknowledge that it has inherited smoothly functioning and effective tax and customs systems. The new government has placed special focus on the increase in social costs and liabilities as well as on subsidizing the agriculture sector. However, it has to implement these plans under the conditions of economic stagnation.

The Georgian Dream took efforts to deliver on one of its key pre-election promises, the amendment of the "unfair" Labor Code in favor of employees' rights. Parliament passed the first reading of the draft amendment to the Code prepared by the Justice Ministry on 19 April. This draft was criticized by the political opposition and the business community, namely the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia and the International Chamber of Commerce Georgia, which declared that the adoption of the draft law would further deepen the stagnation of business and increase unemployment.

As it transpired, a segment of the government also shared those attitudes. The draft amendment to the Labor Code was first criticized by the vice premier and education minister, Giorgi Margvelashvili, who called it "the Labor Code of Rosa Luxemburg's dream" and declared that, if adopted, it would reduce jobs. Agreeing with Margvelashvili's stance, Bidzina Ivanishvili called on the legislators to better accommodate the rights of employers in that law.

It seems that the unfavorable economic situation and the threat of recession have forced the Georgian Dream government to revisit its initial plan and to better adapt its key reform of the labor legislation to the existing reality.

The UNM government started implementing its main reform – the reform of the police – in the summer of 2004. The patrol police was installed nine months after the Rose Revolution, in August 2004.
Education reform was launched over the same time period, with its first results – the united national examinations – being conducted in the summer of 2005.

Both the UNM government and the Georgian Dream government faced the same threat at the outset of their administrations: religious extremism and violence from religious fanatics. The former government undertook radical measures when, in March 2004, it arrested a defrocked priest, Basil Mkalavishvili, who was offending religious minorities.

On 17 May 2013, Orthodox activists, encouraged by religious servants, violently attacked a rally against homophobia. One of the inciters of the chaos was the Patriarch's Chorbishop Iakob, who made aggressive and threatening statements. The police failed to adequately prevent the violence. A couple of days later, the police detained several participants only to impose a minimal fine of 100 GEL on each of them, whilst dragging its feet on punishing the key organizers of the violence – the religious servants. Not until a week after the violence have the police summoned two religious servants to charge them only with violating the right to demonstrate and the illegal and violent thwarting the right to assembly.

The UNM government managed to concentrate power into its hands only after toppling the leader of the Adjara Autonomous Republic, Aslan Abashidze in May 2004. This moment for the Georgian Dream will only come after the presidential elections this autumn. Bidzina Ivanishvili has not hidden that it would be a desirable development for him if the UNM virtually disappeared as the opposition force. In such a case, the Georgian Dream will be left without any political rivals except for those it creates for itself. When in power, the UNM found itself in a similar position and the rival-free environment somewhat degraded its capacity to communicate with society. That resulted in protest rallies and the tensions which started in 2007. If the Georgian Dream gains a political monopoly, it will have a strong chance of following that same path.

After the Rose Revolution, the former government spent several weeks concentrating its power and responding to immediate problems. At the same time, however, it managed to lay the foundations for important reforms. The politics of the Georgian Dream, except for the "reinstatement of justice" – which is oriented towards propagandist effect and, at the same time, helping to punish and remove its political opponents – does not show any hint of future fundamental changes or reforms.

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