Ivane Merabishvili, Georgia’s erstwhile Interior Minister and head of the Government, is now a free man. On February 20, he left jail, having served a six years and nine months sentence in solitary confinement. Freshly released inmate has already set his mind to re-enter the minefield of Georgian politics. Speculations are rife on whether he plans to shore up former President Saakashvili’s camp or decides to pick new political bedfellows. Just before Merabishvili charts a second path in public life, it is well worth to glance at his legacy.
Merabishvili casts a long shadow over Georgia’s recent political age, stretching from revolutionary upheaval in 2003 to transition of power in 2012. Perhaps even more than usual in Georgia’s divisive political life, Merabishvili is a controversial figure. Many Georgians credit “Vano”, as he is commonly known, for sweeping reforms that wiped out endemic corruption in the police force and reined in Georgia’s criminal underworld. Others draw on dismal human rights record to say his heavy-handed tenure was nothing short of wanton violation of human life and dignity.
Merabishvili’s name first hit the headlines in early 2000s when, yet unknown to public, he unexpectedly bashed then-President Eduard Shevardnadze in the Washington Post interview for his frail rule. “He’s tired now,” said Merabishvili about Georgia’s septuagenarian leader, “as a member of his party, I feel he doesn’t have the political will to change anything.” This act of public defiance promptly cost novice MP his post as chair of parliament’s committee. Merabishvili threw in his lot with a change-driven United National Movement (UNM) and took the top job of party’s Secretary General in 2002. A year later, the Rose Revolution toppled Shevardnadze’s regime, paving the way to UNM’s rise to power.
After a short stint as the Secretary of the National Security Council, Saakashvili tapped his close associate to take the helm of the Ministry of State Security, which had previously been suspected of complicity with the Russian intelligence services. Soon a full-scale reshuffle was underway. Merabishvili’s Ministry was fused with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), which amalgamated most of the power-wielding entities. Consequently, a super-agency was created – critics say, a mammoth structure.
As his supporters often put it, Merabishvili assumed a Herculean task of cleaning out the mess in law enforcement services, corrupt to the core. He became the figurehead behind the mass dismissals of police officials, especially from the road patrol, that included top brass on a par with rank-and-file. As a result, 16 000 employees were made redundant (out of appr. 25 000) within two years of the Rose Revolution. Merabishvili designed a brand-new Patrol Police, replacing the ill-reputed Highway Police, a remnant of the Soviet past.
During his eight-year stint as the top cop of the country, Merabishvili famed himself for cracking down on organized crime, embodied by so called “thieves-in-law,” a Soviet criminal subculture particularly pervasive in Georgia. Amended criminal code of Georgia penalized membership of the “criminal underworld,” which was meant to fend off the rampant mafia-like network. The get-tough approach was not limited to the realm of felonies, as Saakashvili espoused “zero tolerance” to petty crime. This policy led to overpopulated prisons, but, Merabishvili reckoned, also contributed to the crime drop on his watch.
For all that, Merabishvili’s footprint is most visible in the glassy police stations, which were shaped so to showcase increased transparency and accountability of the restructured law enforcement system. Merabishvili often credited his team for raising public confidence in the forces of law and order to the new high. “82 % of Georgians trust Police,” he once stated.
Sullied Track Record
However, much-vaunted police reforms had a flip side, Merabishvili’s critics argue. They point to a long list of high-profile cases, which bring into question his performance. In 2006, a young banker’s murder stirred controversy over Merabishvili’s handling of the investigation. On January 27, Sandro Girgvliani went to a café where MIA’s senior officials were enjoying a get-together. Notably, Merabishvili’s wife was present with them. After a verbal altercation, Girgvliani left café with police bigwigs (in their private capacity) and the brawl continued on the outskirts of Tbilisi. Next morning his corpse was found, beaten to death. Police arrested the murderers, but prison sentences meted out to perpetrators were not fair, Girgvliani’s family insisted. Opposition blamed Merabishvili for covering up for several top-level officials linked to planning the murder. Girgvliani’s case turned into a cause célèbre which mustered protesters demanding Interior Minister’s resignation. Backed by the President, Merabishvili did not budge, and suspended from office officials in question.
On November 7, 2007, tens of thousands strong rally that had gathered on Rustaveli avenue was dispersed using tear gas, batons and water cannons. By the end of the day, opposition-leaning broadcasters were raided and taken off air. A state of emergency was imposed, while Saakashvili stepped down and triggered snap Presidential polls in which he came first with 53 % of votes in January 2008. “Opposition is marginalized,” Interior Minister told in his first public interview since the November 2007 events. Asked about riot police’s heavy-handed methods employed to put down popular protests, Merabishvili said it was “normal”, as the situation spiraled out of control.
Interior Minister reasserted his posture as Saakashvili’s strongman during the alleged Mukhrovani mutiny in 2009. According to the official account of events, a commander of a tank unit attempted to stage a coup in order to disrupt NATO-held military drills. In a televised address, Saakashvili claimed that “one group of former military officials,” purportedly linked to Russia, tried to organize unrest in Mukhrovani unit. In 2014 a compromising video footage circulated on YouTube, which showed Merabishvili ordering to bring two corpses [of mutineers]. “Where is Vano?” Saakashvili is heard, asking Merabishvili how to proceed with quashing the insurrection.
2014 final court verdict alleges that Merabishvili’s major misdeed traces back to quelling the 2011 protests. As case Prosecutor argued, Merabishvili had sanctioned using “excessive force” in a “punitive” operation against anti-government demonstrators led by the United Opposition. Defense lawyers referred to a U.S. embassy-commissioned report by Densus Group, a consultancy, which maintained that dispersal operation was executed in a sound manner. Merabishvili denied that he ordered “large scale and indiscriminate attack” against protesters, dismissing the charges as politically motivated.
Top Cop’s Afterlife
On June 30, 2012 Merabishvili was installed as the Prime Minister, which proved to be his highest profile and his last position in UNM administration. This marked the first time since 2005 that a non-technocrat figure was to enter the high office. The President pinned big hopes on the incoming Prime Minister for the upcoming parliamentary polls. “Vano is the man, who managed to defeat corruption and crime; I am sure that he will also defeat our chief enemy – unemployment,” said Saakashvili.
Merabishvili was courted by Bidzina Ivanishvili, philanthropist-turned-politician who decided to take on the UNM. In his open letter which presaged Ivanishvili’s decision to lead the opposition, Georgian billionaire portrayed Merabishvili as “a good manager and a deft organizer,” who succeeded in creating a “functional system” in the form of patrol police. Merabishvili traded the compliment, crediting Ivanishvili for “his charitable activities.” Despite the amiable remarks, Ivanishvili looked askance at Merabishvili’s premiership and refuted allegations of having clandestine ties with him.
When Ivanishvili gained Prime Minister’s post, it spelled ill for his predecessor’s future. On May 21, 2013, Merabishvili was arrested on charges of misspending public funds on UNM activists during the election campaign in 2012. In a separate case, Merabishvili faced charges of embezzlement of private property in 2009, when he served as an Interior Minister. Over the course of years, Merabishvili was sentenced for a number of other cases (beating of a former lawmaker in 2005; Girgvliani case; 2011 Protests break–up).
Merabishvili’s trials were closely inspected by international organizations, as now-opposition UNM decried “a witch hunt” of former government officials. A 2014 OSCE/ODIHR report calls into question fairness of the trial of Merabishvili exceeding official powers. “The court failed to say what the limits of the defendant’s powers were,” hence it could not substantiate the verdict with facts that amounted to a criminal offence, reads the report.
In a 2017 verdict, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the ruling that during the trial of Merabishvili’s case articles 5.3 and 18 of the Convention (trial within a reasonable time and limitation on use of restrictions on rights, respectively) had been violated. Merabishvili alleged that he had been covertly removed from his cell several months after his arrest to interrogate him, and investigators exerted pressure to elicit information about Saakashvili’s foreign bank accounts, as well as the death of former PM Zurab Zhvania.
Given the rancor that Ivanishvili seems to carry against his onetime foe, some wonder whether Merabishvili’s release is final, and whether he will face new charges in related cases, as it was the case with another opposition figure, Gigi Ugulava.
One way or another, Merabishvili’s release is a minor, if predictable, quake in Georgia’s already overheated 2020 election campaign. Whether the mild-mannered strongman will become as central to Georgia’s political life as he once was, is yet to be seen.