TBILISI, Georgia — Prosecutors from the small country of Georgia have filed criminal charges against former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. But it’s the country’s fledgling democracy that’s really on trial.
For the last decade, “Misha” Saakashvili seemed to embody post-Soviet reform and anti-corruption tactics for his own country and throughout the region. Tall, glad-handing, a great salesman of democratic ideals, he remains a revered figure in American neoconservative circles and has longstanding ties to the United States, where he studied for years and where he now lives in de facto exile.
Saakashvili’s detractors claim that he employed Machiavellian tactics and an aggressive PR strategy aimed at the West to create what really was only the veneer of a democracy in the former Soviet republic while fostering, in reality, an oppressive regime.
Part of Saakashvili’s charm for Washington’s warmed-over Cold Warriors was his enthusiasm for NATO and his desire to become a member. But in 2008, long before that could happen, his grip on the country was tested when Russia invaded the small nation after provocations from both sides in one of Georgia’s two breakaway regions. In a foreshadowing of the current Ukraine crisis, NATO did not come to the rescue, and Saakashvili’s country was left more divided than ever.
In the criminal cases that were filed against Saakashvili on July 18, he is charged, specifically, with exceeding his official authority when breaking up anti-government protests in November 2007, and with seizing Georgia’s Imedi TV station along with other assets in 2008 after their owner died. In March, prosecutors tried to summon the former president for questioning about 10 different cases, all of which were announced on the same day. But Saakashvili has not returned to Georgia since the completion of his second and final presidential term in November 2013, and he isn’t likely to anytime soon.
If found guilty, Saakashvili would be looking at five to eight years in prison. He and other leaders from his UNM party have dismissed the charges as part of an ongoing “purely political” witch hunt run by his political nemesis, the eccentric, elfish billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the Georgian Dream coalition that now runs the government, although Ivanishvili himself no longer holds office.
Saakashvili, on his Facebook page, makes all this sound like a Russian plot—revenge against him for thwarting the nefarious designs of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His enemies failed to find billions misappropriated by him, Saakashvili writes, “because I have never misappropriated even a tetri,” a Georgian penny. Without naming names—but all Georgians know who he’s talking about, the ex-president claims Ivanishvili is charging him with thwarting unrest and seizing the properties of another Russian oligarch.
Saakashvili then makes the bizarre claim that “although Russia was frequently masterminding unrest” [in Georgia], and with the help of local politicians, “we have not jailed even a single politician.” (Many Georgians would be surprised to hear that.)
So now Saakashvili is a wanted man and Ivanishvili is maneuvering to bring him down once and for all. One imagines Ivanishvili, a keeper of pet penguins as well as politicians, brooding in his massive 1960s-space-age-movie-esque steel mansion fortress. This isn’t a movie yet, but Saakashvili and Ivanishvili do have a kind of Austin Powers vs. Dr. Evil thing going on.
A truism making the rounds in Tbilisi these days is that every new government Georgia has had since Soviet times has arrested and imprisoned its predecessors, so this is “nothing new.” Yet in the same breath people will proudly tell you that this most recent change of power in 2012 was the first time since the pre-Soviet days that a new political group came into office by a free and fair election, instead of a revolution.
And herein lies the problem. In a genuine, functioning democracy you don’t immediately throw your political opponents in prison after winning the election. It began a month after Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement party in the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Within months a former defense minister and a former interior minister were arrested, tried and sentenced to prison. A bevy of other Saakashvili allies and UNM power brokers who fled the country have been charged with crimes and put on the Interpol “wanted” list.
Some of these characters probably do belong in a Georgian prison. The problem is that the current Georgian government has turned this process into a politically motivated campaign focusing time, energy and resources on prosecuting former officials instead of improving the country and fulfilling the promises it made to the Georgian people who put them in power.
Many in the Georgian Dream party say these trials are somehow cathartic for the Georgian people, but in reality they are simply a distraction from the lack of progress in a country rife with unemployment, a declining population and Russian military occupation of one-fifth of its territory—the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose tiny governments are proxies of Moscow.
Still, the Georgian government is taking this process very seriously. Regional expert Mark Mullen recently told The Daily Beast, “The prosecutors are being very careful with this one and state representatives and their PR firms are speaking a great deal about the rule of law and justice. They took the unusual step of announcing the charges in detail and in native English. [But] we will see how well the prosecutors will make their case. There have been recent well-publicized difficulties in that regard.”
But, however much the current Georgian government wants to appear punctilious, it is giving Saakashvili everything he needs to claim that Moscow is calling the shots. It’s probably true that no one on earth would rather see Saakashvili in jail than Vladimir Putin. And as Saakashvili himself has pointed out, charging him with crimes right now will only hurt Georgia’s relationship with its U.S. and European allies at the time when Georgia needs their support the most in the face of Putin’s unabashed expansionist operations. But Saakashvili’s constant claims about “Putin’s tentacles” and Ivanishvili being a Russian stooge are almost as absurd as the charges against him. Saakashvili’s unhinged Facebook rant did him more harm than good. Right now Misha’s best move would be to keep silent and let his political allies speak for him.
Sadly, what goes around comes around in Georgia. When Saakashvili took power he imprisoned thousands of political enemies along with anyone allegedly associated with the mafia. Under his tenure Georgia became a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world—just behind the U.S. Indeed, like some of Saakashvili’s allies-in-hiding, many of these individuals actually belonged in prison, but there is no doubt that the prosecutions back then also were politically motivated. But at least the ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, for all the allegations of corruption against him, never was detained. That was where Saakashvili and his colleagues drew the line.
Former President Shevardnadze was free to walk the streets of Tbilisi where he peacefully lived out his final years until he passed away last month. This fact alone made Georgia a remarkable place. Even after a revolution—albeit a peaceful “Rose Revolution”—the former president did not spend a single day in jail. Not only did this set a precedent of respect for the country’s highest office, it also sent a message to the world that Georgia was trying to be a civilized democracy.
Although they don’t yet realize it, Georgia’s new government and Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party are the ones actually on trial. How they proceed in the coming months—the choices they make between political revenge and Georgia’s future -- ultimately will decide their fate.