Saakashvili’s former defense and interior minister, ranking officials of the Interior Ministry, the chief of the armed forces general staff and the vice mayor of Tbilisi are among those who have been arrested. Charges brought against them by the new government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman, include abuse of office, illegal detention and torture.
The sweeping nature of the arrests and murky judicial procedures have stirred unease. The secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has said he is “extremely concerned.” A senior U.S. State Department official cautioned Ivanishvili against pursing selective justice.
Ivanishvili claims the arrests are not political and has offered independent monitoring of judicial proceedings. At the same time, he is seeking legislative approval for a weakening of Saakashvili’s remaining executive powers.
Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition won a surprise victory in the Oct. 1 election despite changes to the electoral system apparently intended by Saakashvili’s party to strengthen its own hold. Constitutional amendments enacted under Saakashvili also shifted more power to the prime minister, a position Saakashvili evidently hoped to assume once his final presidential term ends in October 2013. Now, however, Ivanishvili and Saakashvili must cohabitate for a year.
Saakashvili had been criticized in Georgia for accumulating excessive powers, maintaining tight controls on national television and other abuses of power. On the eve of the election, a video was leaked showing prison inmates beaten and abused by guards.
These and other serious allegations must be investigated. But the trials should be conducted fairly and openly, and the result should be due process, not score settling.
Post-Soviet Georgian politics have often been marked by confrontation. Ivanishvili professes to be open to advice from the West on the rule of law, but he and some of his supporters also seem bent on retribution. A contributing factor may be anger with the West, which strongly supported Saakashvili because of his pro-Western stance, for insufficiently challenging his violations of democratic practice.
Western leaders should be consistent about the need for equitable justice, a message that the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, was to convey Monday in Tbilisi. At their meeting next month, NATO foreign ministers should also assess Georgia’s progress in meeting criteria for membership, especially in fostering democracy.
Georgia’s hopes for closer ties with the West — already strong — depend on continued progress toward democracy. Ivanishvili might bear in mind that the European Union has frozen ties with Ukraine, another former Soviet republic with Western ambitions, because of the imprisonment on questionable charges of the former prime minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko.
The United States and the European Union would do well to offer Georgian leaders the counsel of a group of internationally prominent jurists. They could advise on ways to ensure fair judicial proceedings.
The West should also enhance programs to strengthen the rule of law, respect for human rights and media freedoms. The election in October, which was deemed free and fair by Western observers, raised hopes that Georgia could become a beacon of democracy. A retrograde move would put this at risk.
Denis Corboy, a visiting senior research fellow at Kings College, London, served as European Commission ambassador to Armenia and Georgia.William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Kenneth Yalowitz served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.