Mikheil Saakashvili was no angel when he served as Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013. In certain respects he modernised his country, a former Soviet republic of 4.5m people, and raised its profile in the western world. But the longer he stayed in power, the more he tarnished his record on democracy and the rule of law. However, his failings as a leader do not mean that Georgia’s present authorities were wise last week to file criminal charges against him for alleged abuse of power.
First, the charges look more like a weapon of political retribution than an instrument of impartial justice. They appear crafted to strengthen the grip on power of the Georgian Dream coalition that won parliamentary elections in October 2012 and, conversely, to intimidate the pro-Saakashvili opposition. Rather than contributing to stability in a state that has led a fractured and violent existence since independence in 1991, the judicial attack on the ex-president risks prolonging a revenge cycle in Georgian politics.
Second, the charges divert attention from the economic, foreign and security policy challenges on which the coalition should be concentrating. Russia’s seizure of Crimea and military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine highlight the vulnerability of Georgia, a nation westward-leaning in spirit but rarely out of Russian control since its absorption into the tsarist empire in 1801. Not surprisingly, there are concerns in Tbilisi that the Kremlin will intensify its long-term campaign to weaken the post-communist Georgian state.
There can be no doubting President Vladimir Putin’s deep displeasure with Georgia’s attempts, under Mr Saakashvili and his successors, to join the Euro-Atlantic family of nations. The Kremlin punished Georgia in 2008 by luring it into a short war that resulted in Russian recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two pro-Moscow Georgian regions. Formal annexation remains a possibility. Georgian strategists suspect that Russia may one day demand overland access through Georgia to its military base in Gyumri, Armenia. They also fear that Russia may stir up ethnic Armenian separatism in the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, across which a pipeline carries Azeri oil to Turkey.
Against such moves Georgia would be virtually defenceless. Its armed forces are small, it is not a Nato member and its association accord with the EU, signed in June, contains no military provisions. The US and its European allies look with sympathy on Georgia’s struggle to uphold its independence and to construct a prosperous democracy. But the west’s sympathy risks turning cold if Georgia’s rulers persist in hounding Mr Saakashvili and his supporters.
Most charges against the ex-president arise from the crackdown against opposition demonstrators in Tbilisi in November 2007. At that moment it became obvious that Mr Saakashvili’s initially promising efforts at eradicating corruption, introducing economic reform and consolidating democracy had turned into excessive intolerance for dissent. But it should be remembered that he conceded defeat in the 2012 elections, albeit under western pressure, and let the coalition come peacefully to power.
Irakli Garibashvili, Georgia’s prime minister, promises that the legal proceedings against Mr Saakashvili will be “objective and transparent”. Any trial will possess a somewhat unreal quality, since the ex-president lives abroad and has reacted with contempt to the accusations levelled at him.
Given Georgia’s internal and external challenges, western governments should advise the government in Tbilisi that it would be best for all concerned to look to the nation’s future rather than inflame political tensions by raking over the past.