The two arrested politicians from the the main opposition party, United National Movement (UNM), is the General Secretary Ivane Merabishvili, who served as Prime Minister in the former government and Zurab Chiaberashvili, former Health and Social Security Minister, and today the Presidential representative in the Kakheti region. They are accused of having employed political activists in government programs prior to the parliamentary elections in October last year.
Wilfred Martens, President of the European People’s Party (EPP) argues that “these arrests are a very serious setback for Georgian democracy since former PM Merabishvili, as Secretary General of the UNM and leader of the main opposition party is a potential candidate for the upcoming presidential elections which will take place in October. ”
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (UNM), whose term will end later this year, compares the situation with the developments in Ukraine, where Viktor Yanukovych after winning the presidential election in 2011 imprisoned his main political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko. Saakashvili argues that the arrests will threaten Georgia’s ambition for membership in NATO and the EU.
“That these charges are politically-motivated are as clear as day,” says UNM’s leader in the Parliament David Bakradze in a comment. The arrests take place in a tense political climate where the new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili from the coalition Georgian Dream has stated that more arrests of UNM’s politicians are to be expected, most recent in an interview with Le Monde.
During his time as Minister of the Interior 2006-2012 Ivane Merabishvili conducted comprehensive reform of the country’s police forces, which resulted in a major reduction of crime and corruption in Georgia. In 2012 he was Prime Minister.
Zurab Chiaberashvili, with a background as a diplomat, most recently as Ambassador to the Council of Europe and Switzerland, served in 2012 as Health and Social Affairs Minister.
The EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton’s spokesperson states that they follow the developments closely and expect a fair and independent process.
The International Democrat Union (IDU) made the following statement May 27: “The remarkable democratic progress that Georgia made under UNM government now looks to be in danger of reversal. The IDU calls on Prime Mininster Ivanishvili to stop targeting opposition leaders with politically motivated arrests.”
Politicians from UNM have during the last months been exposed to a variety of attacks, including the violent protests on February 8 against a number of the party’s MPs, an attack that the Georgian Dream is suspected to be behind. Moreover, a number of regional party offices have been attacked. So far, no one has been arrested for these acts.
Other groups have been affected by the increased uncertainty as well. On May 17, LGBT activists were attacked by religious extremists. “Freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic value that must be respected, irrespective of personal convictions,” sais Martens in a comment, surprised at the lack of a strong reaction from the government in connection to these attacks.