Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, or so the adage goes. Apply this thinking to recent events in Georgia, and the post-electoral slew of arrests of former government officials in the former Soviet state makes sense.
The once opposition, now newly-minted government Georgian Dream coalition campaigned against the abuses of the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Mikheil Saakashvili and were rewarded with a strong popular and parliamentary majority, rightfully putting them in charge of the country. But the ink on the ballots was scarcely dry before the newly-elected government ordered scores of arrests and investigations of the outgoing members of Saakashvili’s government, raising more than a few eyebrows in the West, home to some of Georgia’s best friends in recent decades. Is the government of the Dreamers going too far?
The experiences of neighboring states in the two decades following the Soviet Union’s collapse point to the risks of not properly addressing the crimes of the past. Russia’s failure to confront the atrocities of the Communist regime aided the resurgence of KGB-era figures like Vladimir Putin, whose regime not only extols the degree of control Moscow exercised during the Cold War—but also does all it can to stomp out civil society-oriented groups like Memorial, which struggle to educate the rising generation about Soviet-era sins. After the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004, the then-triumphant Viktor Yushchenko—like Saakashvili, an early darling of the West—failed to investigate and prosecute the crimes of his predecessors, including those who poisoned him.
The new Georgian government of Bidzina Ivanishvili considers it a top priority to adjudicate the alleged misdeeds of his predecessors, as his foreign minister explained to Washington audiences this week. But many were skeptical and consider the arrests that have taken place in the last six weeks to be little more than political retribution and an atavistic return to the Caucasian political model of winner take all. But while images of their friends and former counterparts hauled off for questioning may not sit well with some Georgia watchers in Washington and Brussels, it remains much too early to call the arrests politically motivated. Until the new government has a chance to prove its commitment to judicial transparency and due process, Western pundits would be better-served by holding off on their cautionary commentaries and editorials.
Finish Cleaning House
To understand what is happening in Georgia today, one must look beyond the well-spun but inaccurate binary comparison of pro-Russia revanchists versus embattled Western allies.
At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Georgia fell short of its aspiration to advance in its bid for accession to the Atlantic security alliance. One of the reasons for this—according to the French government, which opposed granting a Membership Action Plan to Georgia at the time—was the inadequacy of the Georgian judicial system. Since then, experimental jury trials have been conducted in a couple cities, but until the change in governments, Georgian state prosecutors continued to rack up conviction rates of nearly 99 percent, suggesting that the independence of Georgia’s judiciary remains quite weak. How such a system might fairly judge opponents of the current government is yet to be seen. But as foreign minister Maia Panjikidze asked this past week, “judge us not on what we say, but what we do.” Fair enough.
Most serious Georgia observers agree that at least a few members of the previous government may belong behind bars. Former head of the country’s prison system and minister of defense and the interior Bachana “Bacho” Akhalaia is one such figure. The culture of brutality he fostered in every department to which Saakashvili appointed him did much to repulse those who were originally charmed by the Rose Revolution team. In fact, it was the revelation of systematic prison rapes made known just before the election—abuses which most civil society groups attributed to Akhalaia, who was widely known in Georgia as the de facto head of the prison system—that may have helped tip the scales in Georgian Dream’s favor.
Ivane “Vano” Merabishvili, the powerful, longtime interior minister-cum-prime minister, was himself recently detained on charges of using a fake passport. The oddity of the passport issue aside, Merabishvili is best known internationally for his role reforming Georgia’s once hopelessly corrupt police force into a credible public institution. But in Georgia, he is also well-known for presiding over a range of alleged abuses, including an expansive surveillance apparatus, the frequent arrest of opposition members, and, most famously, supposed direct involvement in the death of Sandro Girgvliani, whose investigation the European Court of Human Rights ruled was deliberately ill-conducted. Merabishvili was the one man whose influence in power was thought to potentially rival Saakashvili’s own, and he is remains an important symbol of the powerful security forces of the previous government.
Of course, not all cases are so clear-cut. The dozens of military leaders and interior ministry officials who have also been detained may be guilty of their own share of illegality, but even if such accusations are true, they were likely operating under higher orders. While “as-ordered” is unlikely to be a convincing defense, the chain of alleged abuses emanating from the upper echelons of the previous government begs the question as to when the indictments will end. Ivanishvili’s government cannot and should not arrest and try everyone connected to the instances of overreach by the former regime.
Don’t Rush to Judgement
During a pivotal moment in the country’s development, it’s important that outsiders don’t let themselves get too drawn into the pitched battles of Georgian domestic politics. Given the larger questions of transparency and due process, judging the success of a six-week-old government before they can establish a clear record is premature.
Georgia’s friends would do better to provide non-judgmental suggestions on how to navigate this delicate situation and fulfill their campaign promises. Washington and Brussels should be prepared to offer Tbilisi more concrete pathways towards closer Euro-Atlantic integration, whether it be free trade agreements or something more substantive like a NATO membership action plan.
The West should not turn its back to the overtures of an insistently pro-Atlantic Georgia too quickly. Georgia’s first peaceful transition has created a powerful opportunity to help further the growth of liberal democracy in the Caucasus—and that’s a chance that deserves the patience and assistance it needs to succeed.
Sam Patten has worked as a political consultant for both Saakashvili’s United National Movement in 2008 and more recently for Ivanishili’s Georgian Dream until mid-2012. Michael Cecire is an independent Caucasus analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.