ISTANBUL, Turkey — As armed conflict rages in Ukraine over that country’s Western orientation, Georgia has announced that the architect of its own pro-Western shift a decade ago is wanted on charges of abuse of office.
Former President Mikheil Saakashvili has been feted in the West as a visionary reformer who enacted a wave of successful anti-corruption reforms and set the small post-Soviet state on a path to membership in the European Union and NATO.
But since his party lost power in 2012, the new Georgian government has charged him and several former cabinet members and advisors with malfeasance, alleging that his government engaged in brutal authoritarian tactics and crony capitalism during its eight-year reign.
Saakashvili, who is living abroad, has denied wrongdoing. His supporters criticize the charges against him as politically motivated.
However, polls show the prosecutions are generally popular among the Georgian public, provoking concern in Western capitals.
After the announcement of the charges against Saakashvili last week, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that by charging Saakashvili, the new authorities “deviate from [the] European path in using [the] justice system for revenge” and “damage” the country.
Four US senators also released a statement saying they were “extremely disappointed and concerned” with the charges, saying that they impose “unnecessary challenges in moving our relationship forward.”
The wide range of reactions to the charges mirror the polarizing nature of Saakashvili’s legacy in the former Soviet Union.
Koba Turmanidze, president of pollster CRRC Georgia, says that although Saakashvili’s allies have “exaggerated” the effectiveness of his reforms, he did succeed in turning Georgia into a functioning state after more than a decade of internal conflict, stagnation and misrule.
That made Georgia an outlier in the South Caucasus region, a neighborhood that continues to struggle with single-party governments and entrenched, corrupt elites, Turmanidze adds.
Next door in Armenia, many look at Saakashvili’s accomplishments with admiration and met the news of his prosecution “suspicion,” says Stepan Grigoryan, chairman of the Yerevan-based Analytical Center on Globalisation and Regional Cooperation.
While Georgia was tied for 124th out of 133 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in 2003, it soared to 55th place by 2013. During the same period, Armenia dropped from 77th to 94th.
“Armenians know the success story of fighting corruption in Georgia, including the police, but that does not happen in Armenia,” Grigoryan says. “This is the main reason why you can’t persuade people that Saakashvili was corrupt or that he did things which were not in the best interest of the Georgian nation.”
Saakashvili isn’t without critics elsewhere in the region, Russia chief among them. After he took power in 2004 with the stated goal of pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration, relations with the Kremlin quickly soured.
Following an espionage dispute in 2006, Russia banned Georgian goods and fought a brief war in 2008 over Georgia’s pro-Moscow breakaway region South Ossetia. After Russia temporarily invaded parts of Georgia, some of the Kremlin’s allies recognized South Ossetia and another Georgian separatist region, Abkhazia, as independent.
Many say they see echoes of Georgia’s struggle with Russia in the current standoff between the West and Russia over Ukraine.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, says Russians still largely see Saakashvili as “anti-Russian, pro-American, and basically a fraud domestically.” He says most believe Saakashvili used cosmetic reforms to fool the West into giving Georgia generous political and financial support while he ruled the country as a ruthless autocrat.
Lincoln Mitchell, who has authored two books on Saakashvili’s regime and worked as an informal advisor to his chief opponent in the 2012 parliamentary elections, says some of those criticisms are valid.
In particular, the abuse of power charges leveled against Saakashvili stem from a political crisis in November 2007, when peaceful opposition protests were violently dispersed and an opposition TV station was shut down at gunpoint as riot police stormed its studios.
The channel, Imedi TV, was owned by Saakashvili’s rival in those elections, and had been the most prominent source of dissent in Georgia’s media landscape. Shortly after the channel was shut down by force, it was reopened under government management and operated with coverage that was notably favorable toward Saakashvili’s party.
Since a political coalition called the Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili’s party in the 2012 elections, Georgia’s courts have been flooded with thousands of claims of abuse and unfair expropriation of property under the previous regime. Many believe the election’s outcome was heavily influenced by leaked videos showing inmates being tortured in state prisons.
Although many of the claims lack sufficient evidence, Mitchell says the current leadership has a popular mandate to investigate wrongdoing, and also an imperative to break the culture of unaccountability at the top.
However, going after Saakashvili personally means “rubbing the West’s nose” in the sensitive affair shortly after Georgia signed an EU Association Agreement in June, Mitchell said.
Turmanidze says the greater issue for Georgia isn’t whether wrongdoing was committed, but whether a “weak democracy” can resist creating a precedent for perpetually investigating political rivals.
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“It’s a serious dilemma because every government that defeats another will find something that is not exactly right compared to the laws, which are not the best laws in the first place,” he says.
Regardless of the outcome in the court process against Saakashvili, Mitchell says his legacy in the region will be one of both teachable examples and pitfalls to avoid.
“If we look at Ukraine, part of the problem is that no one [there] ever did what Saakashvili did,” he says. “He built and maintained a pro-West consensus and sent a message that Georgia could be different.”