Georgia: President Fears Clashes as PM Brands Opposition Party "Criminal"
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has warned of a possible civilian conflict in Georgia after Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili termed the country's largest opposition party, the United National Movement, "a criminal organization" with “no right to remain in politics.”
The prime minister's denunciation of the group followed the release of another graphic video that implicated the former government of the UNM's leader, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, in the sexual abuse of prisoners by police. The video, first broadcast by a Ukrainian website, has been displayed publicly in Georgia, while various individuals have attacked UNM offices throughout the country.
"Developments in recent days have strained the political climate and created precursors to the breach of constitutional order and civil confrontation," the president said in an October 22 statement.
The prime minister's words, he underlined, have added to the tensions.
Addressing the cabinet on Thursday about the video-scandal, Gharibashvili made his views plain.
"They [UNM] should be grateful that over the last three years, people have not done to them the same thing that is depicted in these videos,” he said. “I may be a little crass, but they deserve it. They did not appreciate our [government's] democratic conduct.”
Without citing proof, he claimed that this latest police-brutality video, released on October 17 by a Ukrainian website, was distributed by the UNM itself.
His remarks, not yet addressed publicly by Western governments watching Georgia’s reform path, were denounced on Twitter by former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who termed the statement "outrageous" and “[w]ell outside democratic decency.”
The UNM has accused the ruling Georgian Dream of deliberately leaking the video after an opinion poll showed less support for the government coalition than for the UNM in next year’s parliamentary vote .
Prime Minister Gharibashvili has dismissed the accusations that his government has anything to do with the video’s release.
Yet concerns about use of media do not stop there. The video-scandal intersects with a complicated court case over the ownership of Rustavi2, the most influential outlet for government criticism in Georgia and a station with plain loyalties to ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, the UNM’s head.
On the evening of October 21, Rustavi2 Director General Nika Gvaramia called an emergency news conference to report an alleged attempt to blackmail him into letting the company pass into the hands of one of its original owners, Kibar Khalvashi, whom UNM supporters perceive to be a frontman for the authorities. An emotional Gvaramia claimed that an unnamed messenger passed on a threat to him that a compromising video would be published and unspecified attacks staged against his family members if he did comply.
Gharibashvili's government reportedly holds a vast archive of video records of high-profile individuals secretly filmed in intimate situations, as well as of police supposedly torturing detainees. The government claims the videos were made during the UNM's time in power, from 2004 to 2012.
Gvaramia served as education and then justice minister under Saakashvili and, under his management, Rustavi2 has remained openly supportive of the UNM, as well as a highly popular entertainment channel. On Thursday, fans, fearful that the station will close, gathered outside its facilities in Tbilisi to express support.
President Margvelashvili, who long has had a low-key rivalry with Gharibashvili, called on a judge to rule carefully in the ownership dispute. The remark effectively contradicted the prime minister’s assurances that the government is not trying to influence the court.
"I call upon everyone to practice restraint and . . . work to preserve civil peace," Margvelashvili said, inviting political parties to meet with diplomats.
That advice has drawn sharp criticism from the prime minister's team. Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli described Margvelashvili's words as irresponsible. Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze accused Margvelashvili of pressuring the court on Rustavi2.
Georgia has a record of political battles spiraling out of hand, and while some have scoffed that broader violence could erupt at a time when most Georgians appear disinterested in politics, the presidential administration claims it had no choice but to draw the line.