Georgia and the Saakashvili criminal charges conundrum

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The decision by the Georgian prosecutor to press charges against former President Mikheil Saakashvili was not unexpected, but it nonetheless has the potential to change Georgia’s relationship with Europe and the US as well as to stoke domestic political tension, writes Lincoln Mitchell.

Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. The author worked as a consultant for Georgia’s current ruling coalition.

The question of what to do about Saakashvili had been a focus of the Georgian Dream (GD) government since it came to power in late 2012. Few in the GD government had any doubts that there was enough evidence against Saakashvili to indict and even convict him, but most were aware of the complicated politics around charging the former President with criminal activities. 

By the time of the election that brought the GD to office, many Georgians felt that Saakashvili led a criminal regime and that charges against him were appropriate and necessary to restore rule of law in Georgia. Many in the west, however, remain unaware of this widely held view of the former president and his United National Movement (UNM) government in Georgia. Of course, matters of criminal justice should not be decided based on public opinion, but it would be foolish not to recognize that the prosecutor’s office considered public opinion when making this decision. It is also almost certain that the decision to charge Saakashvili was made by the government at a higher level than the prosecutor’s office. Charges against Saakashvili were brought because of evidence that he was involved in criminal activity, but the desires of the public pushed the government more towards making this controversial decision.

Despite all this, there was division within the government regarding whether or not to bring charges against Saakashvili, as some in government did not think it was worth creating problems with Washington and elsewhere in the west. One high placed Georgian viewed it somewhat differently, and told me that while on balance he did not think it was wise to bring charges against Saakashvili, he was worried that if the Georgian government did not do that, the Georgian people would see that as a sign that their government was letting Washington tell them what to do. Others in government worried about western reaction, but were similarly worried about domestic reaction, as well as facilitating a climate of lawlessness, if they did not charge the former president.

The GD government knew what western reaction to charging Saakashvili in this manner would be, not least because of messages from their closest allies urging Georgia not to indict its former president. For the west, the indictment of Saakashvili is a problem on several fronts. There is some legitimate concern that this decision is evidence that the GD government is primarily backward looking, focusing more on addressing injustices of the past than addressing the extremely difficult problems of foreign policy and economic development facing Georgia. However, if this were the only issue, there would be much less concern. The need for holding people responsible for their crimes, and to send messages that nobody is above the law is, at least in principle, part of what many countries need to do before they can move forward.

A few western voices have raised a different concern, that of the precedent that is set by these charges. Charging Saakashvili, whether or not there is strong evidence suggesting his guilt, makes it much more likely that when the GD loses an elections, as they will at some point in the future, their successors put them on trial. Even if the GD commits no major crimes in office, it is almost axiomatic that their conduct in office will provide fodder for some political opponents to charge them with criminal activity. Thus these charges against Saakashvili and other high level UNM leaders may create a precedent that will dog Georgian politics for years to come.

An additional, and more significant, reason why many in the west are concerned about these charges is because it forces them to rethink their own views of Saakashvili. Saakashvili spent the better part of a decade building relationships with key western leaders. Over time, these relationships began to tilt rightward, but he remained popular across much of the western foreign policy elite spectrum. Saakasvhili built this goodwill through a combination of outspoken anti-Russian rhetoric, a handful of remarkable early successes in fighting petty corruption, his substantial personal charm and intellect, and a non-stop, and not cheap, public relations offensive.

Saakashvili’s reputation in the west, particularly in Washington and Brussels, and the network of personal ties on which it rested, kept his regime safe from too much western scrutiny as there were always powerful members of congress or of the UNM’s sister party at European level, the European People’s Party (EPP), government and Commission officials, think tank leaders and others who knew Misha, as they all called him, personally, and trusted that he was a decent man and a democrat. The substantial evidence to the contrary that became difficult to ignore by 2010 or so forced these people into a position of dissonance by the time the GD government came to power. Either they were wrong about Misha, and therefore their ability to judge people, a point of pride for every foreign policy insider or diplomat, was at fault, or the new government is engaged in a witch hunt. For most foreign policy elites, it has been very easy to choose the latter.

Expressing anger at the Georgian government for arresting a friend, even one who might be guilty, does not on its own present a big problem for Georgia, but if, as some have suggested, the indictment of Saakashvili will threaten bilateral relationships, then these MEPs, senators and others are putting their own pride above the principles for which the EU and US in Georgia have tried to stand for the last 25 years. In this regard, leaders in the west, including in the EPP, need to make a decision about whether their support for Saakashvili personally is more important than their support for Georgia. They may also benefit from trying to understand the complexity of Georgian politics.

Because of the pressure from the west to leave Saakashvili alone and the scrutiny surrounding the Georgian government’s actions against the former president, the Georgian government has been in a position where it has had to avoid making any mistakes or misstatements around the case. However, this has proven difficult for the government. First, the notion that the idea to charge Saakashvili originated with and was decided by the prosecutor’s office is difficult to believe given the public statements made about Saakashvili and his UNM by leaders of the GD government, including the Prime Minister. Second, the decision to hold Saakashvili in pre-trial detention in absentia, in addition to sounding almost oxymoronic, (how can anybody be detained while absent?) can be interpreted as a suggestion that Saakashvili is already presumed guilty. Saakashvili may be guilty, but that must be determined by trial. Currently, he is not a flight risk as the former president has already fled, thus undermining the rationale for this kind of pre-trial detention now.

At the heart of the disconnect between the Georgian government and the west is that while the many in the west, including some who genuinely care about Georgia’s future, want the government to be forward looking and address the problems they were elected to address, they overlook reality that to a great extent the GD was elected to put an end to the excesses of the UNM years. In that context, bringing charges against a former president against whom there appears to be evidence of misdoings is part of what the Georgian people want from their government, is consistent with the rule of law, and may be necessary in order to move forward. Clearly many in Georgia see this differently from many in the west, but this is not the only case where one person’s obsession with the past is another person’s closure.

Lost in the controversy surrounding the charges against Saakashvili is that, ironically, they have helped the former president further rehabilitate himself. A year ago, Saakashvili was winding down an awkward and unproductive period of cohabitation as he remained president while the GD controlled the government. His party was heading towards a resounding defeat in the presidential election; and Saakashvili was feeling around for soft landings, finally taking a position at Tufts University in Massachusetts in the US. In 2014, the Euromaidan movement followed by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine afforded Saakashvili an opportunity to put his well-honed media skills, and virulent anti-Putin rhetoric to use again as a frequent commenter on that conflict. The charges against him have allowed Saakashvili to remobilize his true base, which has always been neocons on both sides of the Atlantic. He is now able to position himself half as victim of an angry and vengeful Georgian government, and half as an exiled leader waiting for his moment to return. This cannot have been the goal of the GD government when they decided to bring these charges against Saakashvili, but they should have been able to see this scenario unfold.

Charging the former president with criminal activities has clearly created many problems for Tbilisi. Nonetheless, it may have been the only way for Georgia to finally move forward. Recognizing this and demanding a fair trial, rather than rushing to judgement and condemning the Georgian government, would be a helpful way for Georgia’s true friends to react to these developments.