Vendetta Feud Risks Georgia’s New Friendships in Europe

Soon after committing to firmer ties with Europe, Georgia’s new alliances hang in the balance.

A barrage of criminal charges is being been unleashed against ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who fought a war against Russia and nurtured relations with the U.S. and its allies before billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili swept him from power. The campaign has irked the European Union, which deems it political payback.

The spat risks derailing the Black Sea nation’s transformation from Soviet republic to EU-aligned democracy and thrusting it back toward Russia, which has opposed westward unions in its former stomping ground, most recently in Ukraine. At stake is Georgia’s association pact with the EU, signed in June. The accord needs final approval by the bloc’s 28 members.

“What’s happening now is Georgia practicing so-called selective justice, which is clearly not the European standard,” Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a lawmaker for the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s biggest bloc, said by phone. “I could imagine this would put a serious question mark and problem for the ratification in the European parliament and in the European member states parliaments.”

Saakashvili, who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution and pivoted the ex-Soviet country toward the U.S. and Europe, now finds himself on a domestic wanted list, with prosecutors also seeking an international arrest warrant.

Charges include abuse of office, misuse of funds, breaking up an anti-government rally in 2007 and the illegal “seizure” of late billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili’s Imedi TV station. Saakashvili denies wrongdoing.

Allies Charged

The ex-leader’s allies are also in trouble. They include former Premier Vano Merabishvili, who’s serving five years for misuse of public funds. Gigi Ugulava, ex-mayor of the capital, Tbilisi, and leader of Saakashvili’s United National Movement, is in prison awaiting trial for money laundering, according to his lawyer Gizo Ugulava. Both deny the allegations.

While Georgian officials say the prosecutions have nothing to do with politics, the EU has noted them “with concern,” according to the bloc’s European External Action Service. The bloc has in the past taken a particular interest in cases it deemed political, such as the imprisonment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

If individual nations aren’t happy with Georgia’s democratic values, they can voice their concern by delaying ratification of the country’s association agreement, as has happened in some cases the past, said a person from the office of the European Commissioner for Enlargement.

Just because that pact, which includes a free-trade accord, has been signed, Georgia shouldn’t think “that everything else should be taken for granted,” Philip Dimitrov, the EU’s ambassador to Georgia, said in an interview in Tbilisi. That includes plans to liberalize the visa regime, he said.

Lari Weakens

Georgia’s lari has weakened 2 percent against the dollar since the government initialed the association pact last November. That compares with a 1.1 percent loss for Armenia’s dram and a 0.1 percent gain for Azerbaijan’s manat, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The furore also risks damage to the reputation of a nation ranked eighth among 189 countries evaluated by the World Bank for ease of doing business.

The U.S., Georgia’s staunchest ally since the Rose Revolution, is also worried.

“We are concerned by the continued investigations and criminal charges against opposition figures and the risks that politicized prosecutions would pose for Georgia’s democracy,” Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the State Department, said Sept. 12 in a website statement.

Georgia, a country of 4.5 million people, has received $3 billion in aid from the U.S. in the past 20 years, including $1 billion in military assistance. President Barack Obama’s administration last month announced a $140 million package to improve education in the nation, which borders Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia.

‘Saakashvili’s Friends’

Georgia’s government is defiant. Garibashvili said he told U.S. senators including Marco Rubio and John McCain that they’d got their facts wrong in an Aug, 1 letter that said the prosecutions are linked to politics. He also called the EU “a club of Saakashvili’s friends.”

President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in August that Saakashvili is the one who’s damaging the nation’s reputation by refusing to turn up for questioning by prosecutors.

Against that backdrop, ties with the government in Moscow have improved after reaching a nadir in 2008 as Saakashvili lost a five-day war with Russia over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. Since his departure, Russia -- which has sought to steer former Soviet allies including Ukraine away from EU integration -- has lifted trade embargoes on Georgian goods such as wine and mineral water.

No Patience

Saakashvili, who angered President Vladimir Putin by seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has called the legal proceedings against him a “farce” to please Russia. Ivanishvili, who made most of his $5.8 billion fortune in Russia in the banking and metals industries, denies such allegations.

Russia “will do anything” to keep Georgia out of NATO and the EU, according to Levan Aleksidze, a former adviser to late President Eduard Shevardnadze. Georgia mustn’t sour ties with the EU by falling out with the bloc over Saakashvili as the fate of the association agreement is on the line, he said.

“If we continue on such course, and say such words to our friends and partners, their patience may run out and we’ll get nothing,” Aleksidze said. “We must be careful in our actions.”

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