According to the Georgian constitution, one and the same person cannot run for president three times in a row. Merabishvili, a shady figure involved in some of Georgia’s most unseemly political intrigues of the last seven years, may have been chosen as the key to a combination that will leave Saakashvili in power – in a new role. According to changes to the Georgian constitution, currently voted on by the Georgian legislature, real power will pass to the country’s prime minister and the chairman of the parliament. Experts try to guess which of these positions Saakashvili will save for himself and which one for Merabishvili.
One thing is clear: the projected operation has nothing to do with democracy, and the “honest elections” which the American secretary of state Hillary Clinton talked about during her recent visit to Tbilisi are going to be a joke. Merabishvili, who has been heading the Georgian police – in fact both of its open and secret parts, for he was also the minister of state security in 2004 – during the last eight years, never concealed his disdain for opinions of the masses. There is no reason to believe that during the Georgian parliamentary elections, scheduled for October this year, he is going to adopt a different attitude.
“Vano Merabishvili is going to take upon himself the personal responsibility for ensuring that the National Movement gets preferential treatment during the coming elections. I don’t see anything original in this,” Dmitry Lordkipanidze, a representative of the parliamentary minority in Tbilisi, said in an interview to Tbilisi-based PIK television channel.
The Unified National Movement, a party of Saakashvili’s loyalists, holds a majority of 63 percent in the Georgian parliament, a majority by far more comfortable than United Russia’s 52 percent in the Russian Duma.
It was Merabishvili who organized the brutal suppression of the anti-Saakashvili rally in Tbilisi on November 7, 2007. In his later comments, he openly said that the ultraliberal reforms which he and Saakashvili introduced in Georgia would not be possible without an “element of guile.” According to Merabishvili’s published revelations, he prides himself on “deceiving the simpletons,” i.e. promising social aid and thus prodding the Georgians to give Saakashvili a blank check to rule after the ouster of the former president Shevardnadze in 2003. At the presidential elections in 2004, under the personal oversight of Merabishvili and his colleagues, Saakashvili got 96 percent of the vote, the best score in the post-Soviet space, beaten only by the late president of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov.
“The fact that Saakashvili got 96 percent of the vote in 2004 tells you something about the nature of the regime he installed in Georgia then,” said Felix Stanevsky, former Russian ambassador to Georgia. “Now this regime can proudly name itself the regime of Saakashvili and Merabishvili, for it has relied on police and secret services much more than on people’s votes – from its very beginnings in 2004.”
In his recent comments, Eduard Shevardnadze, formerly a key figure in Soviet-American rapprochement in the late 1980s and independent Georgia’s head of state in 1992-2003, openly bemoaned passing power to Saakashvili in 2003 during the so called “revolution of the roses,” saying it was his “greatest sin before the Georgian people.”
Merabishvili, a key member of Saakashvili’s team since 2003, specialized on unmasking all sorts of “Russian conspiracies” in Georgia, becoming a close third to his fellow Georgians Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria in the number of spy rings that he purportedly uncovered. The most notable among them were his operations of 2006, which included cracking the “Anti-Soros” group in Tbilisi (somehow, this group happened to include some of the country’s most notable politicians) and arresting four Russian officers from the Group of Russian Forces in Transcaucuses, a case that led to an establishment of a visa regime between Russia and Georgia. In 2009 Merabishvili set another personal record, accusing the personnel of a whole military base near Tbilisi of plotting to overthrow Saakashvili. Dozens of people were arrested and sentenced to long terms in prison. In general, “plotters” never live too long if Merabishvili is charged with making them harmless. A wealthy Georgian television magnate Badri Patarkatsishvili, accused by Merabishvili of high treason in 2007, mysteriously died soon afterwards in his London exile. Georgia’s former minister of defense Irakly Okruashvili, who allowed himself the luxury of becoming Saakashvili’s opponent, continues to live in his French exile saying that he fears for his life if Merabishvili’s much praised police sets its hands on him at home.
Georgian police reform is a matter of Merabishvili’s special pride. He boasts of making Georgian police less corrupt by introducing higher salaries and making the officers work in transparent buildings. However, the price that Georgia’s people had to pay for Tbilisi’s glitzy image under Saakashvili and his ultraliberal reforms is staggering – 17 percent of the country’s population is officially unemployed, more than 30 percent live below the poverty level. “I am sure that Merabishvili, who managed to defeat corruption among police, will defeat this country’s main enemy, unemployment, too,” Saakashvili said on Monday introducing his new prime minister.
“Saakashvili’s economic policy is geared to making education and health care 100 percent private and to destroying everything that does not bring immediate financial returns, such as science and arts,” said Alexander Tchatchia, the head of the Tbilisi-based Center for Globalization Studies. “The problem is that this policy impoverishes not only scientists and artists, but also a lot of rank and file citizens, since the existence of small business, if it is independent and not power-connected, becomes impossible in this situation.”
According to Tchatchia, it remains to be seen which place in the future power configuration will be allotted to Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire and the leader of Georgia’s most promising opposition party – Georgian Dream. In recent months Ivanishvili had been making overtures to Merabishvili calling him a “good manager” and suggesting cooperation. Ivanishvili’s own chances of participating in elections are not clear since Saakashvili and his subordinates continue to put pressure on Ivanishvili, denying him Georgian citizenship and plaguing Ivanishvili’s party and businesses by fines. Tbilisi-based political analyst Soso Tsiskarishvili suggests Saakashvili’s jealousy towards Ivanishvili could be one of the reasons for Merabishvili’s promotion.
“Saakashvili may want to prefer Merabishvili in the prime minister’s seat to Merabishvili’s liaising with Ivanishvili in his position of the interior minister, with tens of thousands of armed people under his command,” Tsiskarishvili said.
0Whatever the outcome, it is clear that it is not going to be the voters who will decide the position of Saakashvili in the future power structure of Georgia. Everything will be decided by backroom deals, in which Mr. Merabishvili will obviously be a more important player now.