Saakashvili says Georgian trials motivated by revenge

Prosecutors claim former president misspent state funds and muzzled opposition

He wanted to be remembered and loved as a latter-day David the Builder, the medieval king who ruled over a golden age for Georgia, but Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have taken a wrong turn on the road to hallowed posterity.

The leader of his nation’s peaceful Rose Revolution, navigator of its historic tilt towards the West, and US-backed champion of democracy in the Caucasus, can only watch from self-imposed exile as his legacy is denounced and allies are thrown into jail.

And now prosecutors have come for him, claiming that he misspent some $5 million (€3.96 million) in state funds on lavish travel arrangements, expensive suits and watches and even Botox injections and massage.

More seriously, Georgia’s leader from 2004-13 is also accused of being behind the violent suppression of opposition protests, the seizure of a critical television station and the beating of a politician who mocked his lifestyle.


The charges could earn him 11 years in prison, and cast a shadow over the popular western image of a young, ebullient, US-educated and “freedom-loving” president.

After ousting the Soviet-era old guard in late 2003, Saakashvili really did transform aspects of Georgian life: slashing crime, petty corruption and red tape, opening the country to foreign investors and tourists, and throwing up new buildings that were bold and modern, even if not universally popular.

But there were also many good reasons for Georgians to vote his party out of power two years ago, and to reject his chosen candidate in a presidential election last year.

Saakashvili is widely blamed for starting Georgia's brief but disastrous war with Russia in 2008, for ignoring high-level cronyism and police brutality, and for concentrating power among a clique of loyalists who used it to stifle dissent.

Just desserts

Georgia’s current government – still pro-western but far less critical of Russia than Saakashvili and friends – insist the ex-president and his allies are now getting their just deserts under an independent and transparent legal system.

From his new residence in Brooklyn, New York, Saakashvili says that he and several former ministers who have been jailed or placed on remand are the victims of political persecution by his arch-enemy – billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Georgia’s richest man, Ivanishvili supported Saakashvili’s reforms and funded many projects out of his own pocket, before becoming so disillusioned with the president that he decided to enter politics with the sole aim of ousting him.

Just six months after forming his party, Georgian Dream, Ivanishvili’s coalition beat Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in October 2012 elections, and became prime minister.

Last November, Saakashvili stepped down as president after serving the maximum two terms, and Ivanishvili’s handpicked successor replaced him.

Three days later, Ivanishvili resigned as premier and installed another protégé in his place, claiming to be satisfied that he had set Georgian democracy to rights and could now leave public life and focus quietly on civil society projects.

Relentless attack

What he has actually done, according to Saakashvili and his party, is continue to run the country through a puppet president and prime minister, and direct a relentless legal attack on political opponents.

Before turning to Saakashvili, prosecutors secured the conviction of his former prime minister, Vano Merabishvili, for abuse of office; an ex-defence minister and a former Tbilisi mayor have spent many months in jail awaiting trial, and another former defence chief and justice minister are on the wanted list.

“We see that prosecutions are not brought against Georgian Dream members, or are dropped if a person joins that party,” said Giga Bokeria, a UNM leader and former secretary of Georgia’s national security council.

Bokeria sees the jailed ex-ministers as political prisoners, and recalls how “the oligarch” (Ivanishvili) explained publicly that “queues at the prosecutor’s office” would shrink only when the UNM “changes its rhetoric and stops lying”.

Last month, Georgian courts froze assets belonging to Saakashvili and his wife, mother and grandmother, including modest plots of land and ageing cars.

“What they are doing to his family is a disgrace,” said Bokeria, who has been questioned in an investigation into suspected misspending of state funds.

Otar Kakhidze, Saakashvili’s lawyer, said the cases against him and others were riddled with holes. “I would win [Saakashvili’s] cases before any impartial court. But our system of justice is very young and fragile, and . . . at this moment the government absolutely controls the criminal justice system.”

‘Revenge trials’

The United States and European Union have repeatedly urged Georgia to steer clear of “revenge trials” and to avoid the kind of politically motivated prosecutions that blight most other former Soviet states.

Rights groups in Georgia have concerns over the motivation and conduct of these cases, but stop well short of the UNM’s claim that it is being persecuted and that some members are political prisoners.

"Two years ago, I was asked this question frequently by almost everybody I met," said Georgia's foreign minister Maia Panjikidze.

“Now I didn’t hear it for a long time, after we invited international observers to monitor the trials.”

Speaking to The Irish Times after attending the United Nations general assembly late last month, Ms Panjikidze expressed a feeling among many Georgians that Saakashvili – much as he would hate to admit it – is yesterday's man.

“I met more than 50 colleagues in bilateral meetings in New York and didn’t speak once about prosecutions or Saakashvili,” she said, before adding with a withering smile: “We had a lot of important things to discuss.”