Georgian gov’t going the way of repressions? Arrest of opposition leader Ugulava – analysis
Former Tbilisi Mayor and leader of the opposition party European Georgia Gigi Ugulava is back in jail.
The indictment alleges that Ugulava appropriated more than 48 million lari [about $17 million] and used these funds for the needs of the former ruling party, the United National Movement, led by former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
Gigi Ugulava was mayor of Tbilisi from 2005 to 2013, when Saakashvili was president. The government of the Georgian Dream party came to power in 2012.
Ugulava was first arrested in July 2014 and released from prison in January 2017.
Politicians and experts call Ugulava a “political prisoner” and say that the detention of Ugulava nine months before important parliamentary elections is a link in a series of repressive moves made by Bidzina Ivanishvili himself, the oligarch-leader of the ruling party and an informal ruler of the country.
Opposition ceases negotiations with authorities
The Supreme Court announced the decision in the Ugulava case in a closed session. Neither Ugulava nor his lawyer were present.
They awaited the court ruling in the office of the Labor Party, which for several months had become the impromptu headquarters of the Georgian opposition, united around the demand for a proportional system in the elections.
Here at one table sit leaders of both pro-Western and pro-Russian forces, extreme left and ultra-right parties.
The Georgian opposition united after the government refused to fulfill its promise in November that the next parliamentary elections should be held in a fully proportional system.
The authorities are satisfied with the current model, as it provides more opportunities to manipulate the administrative resource.
Opposition parties are discussing how to defeat in the upcoming parliamentary elections the most influential person in Georgia, who today, in addition to a lot of money, has concentrated absolute and unlimited power in his hands.
Today Bidzina Ivanishvili officially only holds a party position – the chairman of the ruling party Georgian Dream. However, it is he – and not the Prime Minister – who rules the country.
Prior to the arrest of Gigi Ugulava, opposition leaders held talks with government officials about a future electoral system. The negotiations were preceded by numerous protests, where authorities repeatedly used force.
Harassment and suspicious attacks against opposition leaders and civil activists began (for example, Ugulava and his party colleague, Goku Gabashvili, were attacked in Tbilisi at the airport).
Although the government did not make concessions and the negotiations did not bring any results re the electoral system, this process was supported and welcomed by Western partners and diplomats accredited in Georgia.
However, the arrest of Ugulava actually destroyed the only format where dialogue with the authorities was possible. The opposition says it will stop talking to the government from now on:
“We, the opposition that is gathering here, have no choice but to stop any negotiations, rounds and consultations with the bloody regime of Ivanishvili … Continuing negotiations means pushing the dictator to commit a new crime. We turn to disobedience,” said the leader of the Labor Party, Shalva Natelashvili.
In turn, representatives of the authorities say that Ugulava committed a crime, and it does not matter whether he was arrested in the election year or at any other time.
In a long interview with the Imedi pro-government television channel on November 28, after the parliament voted against the election reform, Ivanishvili clearly hinted that hard days await opposition and civil activists.
“This is a tragic situation. I do not like that they bang their heads against the wall, they have no chance. They don’t sleep at night, they deceive each other that ‘not today, tomorrow we will come [to power]’. They have no chance. At this time they are going all-in. Spending a huge amount of energy. Some are going for two days [to prison], some for a week. Some have minor injuries, some worse. Some have served [prison sentences] for many years, and many will have to, but they will sacrifice themselves,” Ivanishvili said.
The opposition took his statement as a threat.
And not only the opposition. Ivanishvili was reminded of his statement in a critical letter from Senators James Rish and Gene Shahin, which they wrote to the Georgian government. During a speech delivered in PACE by Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, she was asked to give explanations re Ivanishvili’s statement.
Harassment of opposition and activists in Georgia soars
Today, criminal cases are instituted in Georgia against almost all the leaders of leading opposition parties. Many old cases have also resumed, which were suspended for various reasons.
•The case against the former secretary of the Security Council of the Saakashvili government, now one of the opposition leaders Gigi Bokeria, has resumed.
•Nika Melia, one of the leaders of the opposition movement National Movement (the former ruling party during the presidency of Saakashvili), by the decision of the court, wears an electronic bracelet and cannot leave the country or participate in demonstrations.
•Another leader of the same party, the third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, cannot return to the country because of the charges against him. If he arrives, they will probably arrest him right at the airport.
•A criminal case has been opened against the founders of the new political movement Lelo, former managers and founders of one of the largest banks in Georgia, TBC Bank Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze. The case concerns a banking operation 12 years ago, which allegedly was related to money laundering.
•Criminal proceedings were instituted against the owners and directors of two independent television channels, Mtavari and Pirveli.
•The director of another new opposition Formula television station was summoned to the prosecutor’s office in October 2019, where he was interrogated for nine hours in the case of violations on another Rustavi 2 television channel.
What does this all mean? Commentary
“Ivanishvili has finally embarked on the path of repression. He is deliberately creating tension and deepening polarization. This way means burning bridges and self-isolation … Georgia has not tolerated and will not tolerate such unworthy rulers,” David Berdzenishvili, one of the opposition leaders, wrote on Facebook after the arrest of Gigi Ugulava.
US Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who had previously been one of the authors of a sharply critical letter to the Prime Minister of Georgia, published a statement on his Twitter. He condemned the use of the judiciary against opponents.
“European Georgia leader Gigi Ugulava was arrested today. It will be too soft to say that this is just our concern. Using the courts as a weapon is NOT a democracy,” the congressman wrote.
The opposition and many experts believe that the provocative and radical steps taken by the Georgian authorities will deprive the country of Western support and return it to Russia’s orbit.
“We should not exclude anything, including reckless acts such as the continuation of arrests and detentions. The events around Gigi Ugulava clearly show that this is a politically motivated decision,” said David Usupashvili, leader of the Development Movement.
The opposition draws attention to the fact that Ugulava was arrested on the same day when the newly appointed US ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, met with opposition leaders at her residence. This happened two days after the visit of the Chairman of the Parliament Archil Talakvadze to Washington, where he was advised to conduct a dialogue with the opposition, having received a corresponding promise.
“This is a slap in the face of the international community. Ivanishvili dishonored everyone who spoke with his puppets in Washington. They don’t forgive anyone, Ivanishvili will be severely punished,” MP Roman Gotsiridze, one of the leaders of the opposition National Movement, said.
Politicians do not exclude the imposition of Western countries sanctions against billionaire Ivanishvili.
“For example, the oligarch Plahotniuc, who escaped and was on the sanctions list (USA). There was a similar case in Romania. It is possible that he (Ivanishvili) may share their fate,” said one of the leaders of European Georgia, deputy Sergi Kapanadze.
“Ivanishvili answered the West that he did not care about their opinion. I don’t think that the Western partners will continue to tolerate such an abusive attitude from the Georgian authorities,” said Rukhadze, an expert on foreign and security policy.
Even the former associate of the Georgian oligarch, ex-Prime Minister of Georgia Giorgi Kvirikashvili called the arrested opposition leader “political prisoner,” and the current processes “repression” and “abandonment of the chosen democratic course.”