Georgia Is Not Ukraine and Must Be Given the Chance to Prove It

The surface similarities between the arrests of former Georgian and Ukrainian prime ministers Vano Merabishvili and Yulia Tymoshenko should not be used to undermine attempts to support the rule of law in Georgia, argues Columbia University's Lincoln Mitchell.

A few months ago Georgia's new justice minister Tea Tsulukiani gave a talk at Columbia University where I teach. This was the first talk by a member of the Georgian government since the October 2012 election which saw the defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) at the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian dream.

As I chatted with Tsulukiani in my office before the talk I was a little nervous. During recent years events about Georgia have often been tumultuous at Columbia, with disagreements between speakers, accusations of being a Russian spy hurled at any critic of the Georgian government and Georgian students being harassed by representatives of their government all very common.

I also did not know what to expect from the event because Tsulukiani, as justice minister, had been the person most identified with the spate of arrests of high ranking members of the previous regime in the early months of the new government. These arrests had led to loud criticism from many in the US and Europe - a problem for the new government seeking to strengthen their international image.

However, Tsulukiani, a prominent human rights lawyer with over a decade of experience working at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) investigating the abuses of the Saakashvili regime, was a far cry from Georgia's former justice minister - an enforcer of the previous government's non-democratic rule who fled the country as soon as his party was defeated.

Guided by her experience at the ECHR, Tsulukiani explained that these arrests were not political revenge, as critics of the new government maintained, but were efforts by a new government to restore the rule of law to a country where the previous government had become increasingly corrupt and abusive towards its citizens.

My concerns were heightened when Tsulukiani and I walked into the room before the talk with only a few faculty members and students in the crowd. The rest of the audience were Georgians from around New York. After the talk, we opened the floor up to questions. The Georgians in the room were angry and wanted to ask Tsulukiani about the arrests. However, they were mostly angry because they felt the new government had not arrested enough people and was too concerned with judicial niceties.

Therein lies the conflict over rule of law in Georgia today. Leaders in the US and Europe, largely out of embarrassment for their solid support of Georgia's previous regime long after the Georgian people, international human rights groups and Georgian NGOs became aware of the degree of criminality and brutality in parts of that government, have expressed disappointment to see their friends arrested.

The new Georgian government, for its part, has a large constituency who are angry at a defeated government whose leaders are believed to have engaged in high level corruption, abused state resources for political gain, violently broken up demonstrations and tortured prisoners.

For countries like Georgia which do not rank among the most important foreign policy questions facing the US or Europe, narrative and heuristics are particularly important in Washington DC and other western capitals. Policymakers, pundits and kibitzers see these countries through brief but straightforward stories and analogies rather than by seeking nuanced understandings.

The current frame for Georgia is that of a popular western leader being defeated by pro-Russian forces seeking to move the country away from democracy. This frame fits another former Soviet country, Ukraine, quite well, so the temptation to apply it to Georgia is understandable. However, to understand Georgia this way is not only reductive but wildly inaccurate and requires ignoring the empirical reality in favour of the propaganda of a failed and defeated regime.

Currently, the application of the Ukraine frame to Georgia is expressed most overtly by viewing the recent arrest of former Georgian prime minister Vano Merabishvili as the equivalent of the imprisonment of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The surface similarities are clear; both are former prime ministers who shortly after a change in power found themselves in jail. These similarities should not obscure the differences. Just because Tymoshenko is imprisoned under largely trumped up charges, does not mean that all former prime ministers who have been arrested are in a similar plight.

Merabishvili is not well known in the west, which is probably one of the major reasons his arrest has raised so much concern. As interior minister from late 2004 to mid 2012, Merabishvili, more than any other individual, was associated with the authoritarian excesses of the previous Georgian government. Violently dispersing rallies, bugging opposition phone lines, using police for political purposes and even involvement in unresolved murders, such as the head of the united Georgian bank's foreign department Sandro Girgvliani in 2006 are all linked to Merabishvili's interior ministry.

As prime minister, Merabishvili was involved in efforts to use government resources to illegally support his political party which was on its way to being defeated in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

None of these allegations mean Merabishvili is guilty; and the need for a fair and transparent trial remains. However, these allegations suggest that the reason he was arrested was not because Merabishvili was a political opponent but because he was extensively involved in wrongdoing and illegality.

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych is leading his country away from democracy and towards a closer relationship with Russia. His presidency has been marked by limiting freedoms of media and assembly, continued corruption and abuses of power. Yanukovych won the 2010 election because of the weakness of the previous regime and the economic downturn of 2008.

Despite the fact that they both defeated people who were, at one time, very popular in the west, Yanukovych and Ivanishvili have little in common. Ivanishvili defeated a regime that had already descended into corruption, incompetence, torture and violence. Governing after the defeat of a regime like that requires reinstating the rule of law, but also, one way or another, reconciling the past. In that context, arresting leaders of the previous government is very different.

Efforts to restore the rule of law are not likely to be successful if no wrongdoers are punished. However, the new government needs to find a way to punish those who commanded the illegal acts and set up the system of violence and corruption, while allowing the state to continue to function. In this regard, it is significant that to date, Ivanishvili's government has succeeded in limiting arrests to only the senior most culpable figures.

US and European calls for a fair trial for Merabishvili and others are important, but statements of concern over the arrest are misplaced. To miss this point because of the surface similarities between Merabishvili and Tymoshenko is to seriously misunderstand the current political situation and undermines attempts to support the rule of law in Georgia.

Georgia is not Ukraine, and it must be given the chance to prove it, as those former officials charged will be given the chance to prove their innocence.