Georgia: Ex-Defense Minister's Arrest the Start of a Crackdown or Cleanup?
Maintaining military discipline may require some fairly tough tactics, but hitting a subordinate over his head with the handle of a knife may be taking things a bit too far. Yet that's the accusation leveled by Georgian prosecutors against ex-Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, whose arrest last night has caused a major political stir in the country.
Thirty-two-year-old Akhalaia, who has served as defense minister (2009-2012), interior minister (July-September 2012) and penitentiary system boss (2005-2009), is the first key ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili to be arrested since the victory of the rival Georgian Dream coalition, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, in Georgia's October 1 parliamentary vote. The army's ex-Chief of Joint Staffs Giorgi Kalandadze and 4th Brigade Commander Zurab Shamatava were also pulled in early this morning.
The three men are accused of violence against several military officers. General Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili claimed that last year the former defense minister and the two commanders beat and verbally abused several servicemen in Akhalaia’s office and, later, at a military base.
In an affidavit provided by prosecutors, one anonymous serviceman recounted how Akhalaia allegedly had shown him a secret video recording of him cursing the minister, and then taken a knife with which he was "slicing and eating fruit" and banged the subordinate over the head with the handle.
Saakashvili's allies have been quick to describe the arrests as the beginning of political repressions against the president’s loyalists. Maintaining that Bacho would not hurt a fly, the president's United National Movement engaged in a bitter debate during the parliamentary session today with MPs from Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream.
Some UNMers claimed that Akhalaia's arrest was personal revenge by the country's current defense minister, Irakli Alasania, who lost a race to Akhalaia’s father, Roland, in the western town of Zugdidi during the parliamentary vote.
Prime Minister Ivanishvili defended prosecutors' move, but nonetheless finds himself caught between the competing goals of righting the alleged wrongs of the Saakashvili administration, as expected by many of his voters and allies, and avoiding a full-scale crackdown against political rivals, something that diplomats fear.
Akhalaia, long viewed by the Georgian Dreamers as the Saakashvili administration's hit man, has been an expected target for the new government. Accusations of abusive behavior have dogged Akhalaia ever since he became the country’s executive prison warden in 2005.
Akhalaia resigned as interior minister in September, shortly before the elections, when video revelations of prison abuse caused a massive outpouring of public anger and calls for his arrest. His disappearance post-election was widely attributed to a supposed desire to escape the wrath of the Ivanishvili government -- a charge he has denied.
Saakashvili loyalists, who could be fearing for their own future, already claim that Akhalaia is now a political prisoner. But given that the investigation just began, he is missing some of the elements needed for the role of Georgia’s Yuliya Timoshenko. And it is not just the braid.