By the Eurasia Democratic Security Network
March 17, 2020
Vano Merabishvili was surprisingly energetic when he emerged from prison in February. The 51-year-old had been behind bars since 2013, put away for abuses of power allegedly committed between 2004 and 2012. Georgia’s former minister of interior and prime minister, he looked pale and had dark circles around his eyes. Nonetheless, he radiated defiance, declaring the intention to “keep fighting in order to remove this regime [the ruling Georgian Dream government] this year.”
Despite his apparent vigour, Merabishvili is something of a ghost. Georgia’s former “top cop” and the architect of some of the country’s most important reforms, he remains intensely loved by some and deeply reviled by others. His release was another reminder of how the National Movement era still hangs over Georgian society, and of the gap that still separates supporters of Georgia’s previous government from those that carry bitter memories about its abuses.
From the outside, one can sympathize with both sides of this divide. After sweeping into power in 2003 in the bloodless Rose Revolution, the National Movement leveraged American and European support to swiftly build a functioning state. In less than three years, Georgia went from basket-case to poster child, eliminating petty bribery, attracting foreign direct investment, and putting Georgia on a path toward deeper integration with Nato and the European Union.
Merabishvili is rightly credited with these successes. Under his stern leadership, Georgia’s police agencies went from professional bribe taking rackets to functioning crime fighting outfits. These reforms took courage. In 2004, the then-Interior Minister fired 16,000 police officers during an anti-corruption campaign. The reforms paid off. Law enforcement became one of Georgia’s most respected institutions under Merabishvili’s leadership.
Police reform, and the man who spearheaded it, became a symbol of success for the National Movement. It also came to symbolize its abuses. By late 2006, most of the signature reforms were in place. While the country’s leaders devoted foreign policy to deepening their integration with NATO and the EU, they turned their internal focus to maintaining power over the system they created. For the National Movement, democracy wasn’t the point. Its real concern was building state institutions that could enable a market economy to flourish, and that could propel Georgia into those western institutions. If the public supported that agenda, all the better. If and when public support dried up, the National Movement was willing to resort to coercive methods.
Having built an effective state apparatus, the National Movement wielded that apparatus against its enemies, with Merabishvili landing some of the biggest blows. He is widely blamed for high-profile incidents of police brutality occurring in 2006 and 2007. The first, the infamous “Girgvliani Case,” involved the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Sandro Girgvliani, a young bank employee. Girgvliani was found dead in a Tbilisi suburb hours after publicly insulting Merabishvili’s wife Tamar Salakaia. (It has never been established whether the banker died directly from his injuries or froze to death after being left by his assailants.)
Merabishvili chose to personally oversee the investigation, leading to questions about the legitimacy of the outcome. Eventually, four Ministry of Interior employees, Geronti Alania, Mikheil Bibiluridze, Avtandil Aptsiauri, and Aleksandre Gachava, were tried and convicted for the murder. Notably, investigators working under Merabishvili’s direction found that the murder was unconnected to the young banker’s tirade against Salakaia.
While Merabishvili is not proven to have directly ordered Girgvliani’s murder, at the very least he interfered to prevent an impartial investigation. Some opposition voices go even further, speculating that such a drastic action by Ministry of Interior officials could not have taken place without Merabishvili’s approval.
In 2007, another incident, less shocking but larger in scope, indicated how far the National Movement was willing to go to maintain its hold over power. That November, large anti-corruption protests were used to justify a harsh government crackdown. After President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a nationwide state of emergency, Merabishvili’s security forces violently dispersed protestors from downtown Tbilisi and assaulted TV stations reporting critically on the government’s handling of the situation. The government blamed the protests, which were largely financed by pro-opposition businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, on a Kremlin plot to overthrow the government.
Then, in 2012, less than two weeks before parliamentary elections, political operatives working against the National Movement released video footage showing the torture and sexual abuse of prisoners in Tbilisi’s Gldani prison. (Note: Merabishvili, who oversaw Georgia’s penal system from 2004 to 2008, was not directly implicated in the scandal.) While the government hand-waved the abuse as an isolated incident, it added to steadily-growing public resentment of the government. Some commentators argued that it was a fitting indicator of the kind of state the National Movement had built. As Charles Fairbanks, a long-time Georgia watcher and board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, wrote at the time:
“I think Georgians have reacted as intensely as they have to the videos on the belief that they symbolize an underlying reality in the country. What people watched on TV wasn’t just isolated acts but a brutal system leading to a very specifically bureaucratic program of violence: prisoners being lined up in an orderly, bureaucratic row, holding their files, to be beaten, taunted, and often defiled.”
There are other cases of abuse allegedly involving Merabishvili, too many to recount here.
The Perks of Not Being Hated
The United National Movement’s electoral defeat in 2012 in favour of Georgian Dream, an upstart political coalition that lacked a cohesive ideology, can be explained in simple terms: a significant portion of the electorate was exhausted after nearly nine years of upheaval (a dramatic cycle of reform, consolidation, and abuse of power; Russia’s invasion in 2008) and fed up with the National Movement’s arrogance and penchant for violence.
When Georgian Dream won an even larger majority in 2016, it was less because it had earned the support of the public and more because it had avoided inviting its hatred. In fact, Georgian Dream received a lower share of the popular vote than it had in 2012, a quirk of Georgia’s mixed-majoritarian electoral system that heavily favours incumbents.
After a period of relative calm and positive reform between 2012 and 2016, Georgia has undergone clear democratic backsliding. Both citizens and the country’s Western partners have grown frustrated with GD’s unwillingness to implement judicial reforms. The country has been led by four prime ministers in as many years. The party’s billionaire bankroller Bidzina Ivanishvili has exuded more arrogance as his grip over the country has grown tighter.
Ghosts Need Not Apply
Enter Merabishvili. Despite his chequered past, the former interior minister still enjoys support among a certain section of the population, roughly the same people who still pine for Saakashvili’s return to Georgia. His path to re-enter politics is unclear, however. Even he admitted this when addressing reporters on the day of his release: “Unfortunately, my closest friends and comrades are in different parties. I will, of course, meet all of them, listen to them and then make decisions.”
One path would be to reconnect with his former colleagues from the United National Movement. However, he isn’t necessarily capable of contributing to the former ruling party’s revival. In early 2017, the National Movement split into two parties, the offshoot, European Georgia, attempting to distance itself from Saakashvili and from the abuses committed between 2004 and 2012. Those people who stayed behind, including polarizing figures such as Nika Melia, Tina Bokuchava, and Salome Samadashvili, lack popularity outside of a committed group of party activists. Even Saakashvili appears uninterested in the ex-interior minister’s services, advising Merabishvili “not to engage in politics anymore.”
Merabishvili’s second option would be to attempt to foster a reconciliation between his former friends. This seems unlikely, given that European Georgia is rebranding, attempting to frame itself as a reasonable voice for reform rather than those who, less than a decade ago, regularly visited violence on their opponents. Party Chairman Giga Bokeria welcomed Merabishvili’s release from prison, referring to him as a “friend” and a victim of “political repression.” He did not, however, discuss the immediate political implications of Merabishvili’s return. Nor did he declare his intention to work with Merabishvili in the future.
There don’t appear to be many other options. The Lelo Movement, an upstart political project devoted to bringing down Georgian Dream, doesn’t seem interested in working with Merabishvili. While the party’s founder Mamuka Khazaradze welcomed Merabishvili’s release from prison, he said his party had no plans to cooperate with him, and distanced his party from comments Merabishvili made about “overthrowing” the current government.
Another option would be for Merabishvili to run as an independent in one of Georgia’s 30 majoritarian districts (assuming that Georgian Dream’s Parliamentary majority passed promised electoral reforms). Without party backing, however, it would be difficult for him to marshal enough resources to win a district.
Merabishvili doesn’t appear to have a viable political future. But if he chooses to re-enter politics, it will only reinforce the sentiment that Georgia needs a new path forward – an alternative to Georgian Dream, surely, but one that doesn’t recall the wounds of the National Movement era.
The author is a Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN) fellow. EDSN is an international research fellowship project of the Center of Social Sciences, Tbilisi and made possible with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.