Perception And Reality In Georgia's Military Arrests
Georgia's new prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili visited Brussels and NATO headquarters this week, amid worries that recent arrests of top military officials represent political reprisals against the allies of President Mikheil Saakashvili. Prior to Ivanishvili's visit, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had already voiced his displeasure over the arrests, saying he was "extremely concerned." At a joint press conference after his meeting with Ivanishvili, Rasmussen was a little milder, suggesting he was mostly concerned about Georgia's image:
I am concerned if these trials are perceived to be politically motivated that would be damaging for the image of the country and the government. Even if it's not true. That's my concern. This is the reason why it is of utmost importance to stress that such trials must take place in accordance with the basic principles of rule of law, ensure full transparency, ensure due process. That's what I have made clear.
The Prime Minister has assured me that will be the case. And based on that, I also have to say, and really stress, we're not going to interfere with ongoing trials. We have confidence that they will be conducted without political interference and live up to the fundamental principles of rule of law.
Democracy expert Jay Ulfelder, in a worthwhile blog post, applies some political science to what he calls the "Mexican standoff" between Ivanishvili, Saakashvili and the Georgian security forces, also noting that perception here is at least as important as reality:
It’s not the handful of arrests themselves that are so worrisome, of course. It’s what they imply about Georgian Dream’s underlying intentions. In the Mexican standoff metaphor, these arrests are a menacing turn of the eyes and hips in the direction of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and its sympathizers in the police and defense establishment.
Maybe those fears are overblown. Maybe Georgian Dream is being straight with us when it says it’s just pursuing legitimate investigations into abuses of power during President Saakashvili’s tenure. Even if that’s the case, though, the resulting uncertainty about its true intentions and growing fear of a self-coup will increase the risk of a military coup or a rebellion by the UNM as these factions grow more concerned about their fading prospects under Georgian Dream. The stronger their belief that Ivanishvili has it in for them, the stronger their incentive to respond fast, before the bullets arrive and score some serious damage.
To which Ivanishvili might respond, what am I supposed to do if former government officials who committed crimes cried "persecution!" when they were prosecuted for those crimes? That is a fair point, and one that is not unique to Georgia; U.S. President Barack Obama declined to prosecute officials from the Bush administration for various war-on-terror-related abuses like torture, because he didn't want to be perceived as exacting political revenge.
Ivanishvili, however, doesn't appear to be too concerned with that image; the day after his visit to NATO several Interior Ministry officials were arrested.