In a terrible week for the Georgian judicial system, Giorgi Ugulava, former mayor of Tbilisi, has gone behind bars. Within days, several signs of blatant politicisation of the case emerged, including pressure on the judges, procedural mistakes and hesitations resulting in a very dubious sentence of four and a half years imprisonment.
This sentence could blemish the reputation of the current government for some time. The Georgian Dream coalition came to power in 2012 precisely on promises to restore justice after a decade of rule by President Mikheil Saakashvili. While Saakashvili may have de-corrupted the courts, many experts believe that he did not de-politicise them.
The warning sign came on 16 September, when Georgia's Constitutional court declared the holding of an accused person in pre-trial detention for over nine months unconstitutional.
By this time, Ugulava had been in pre-trial detention for 14 months due to a series of new cases opened against him after February 2013. These cases mostly concerned the misspending of public funds.
Ugulava, a key figure in Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), dismisses these charges as politically motivated. The opening of new cases against Ugulava thus automatically started a new pre-trial detention period, sometimes after re-qualifying the charges. Georgia's General Prosecutor invoked one of the clauses in the criminal procedural code adopted by the UNM's parliamentary majority in 2010 that permitted the extension of the nine-month pre-trial detention in case of new charges. Finally, the Constitutional Court declared Ugulava's pre-trial detention for over nine months unconstitutional.
'A Lot Remains to Be Done'. Giorgi Ugulava during his mayoral re-election campaign in 2010. Photo: Demotix/RFE-RL'According to Georgian law,' begins Ugulava's lawyer Beka Basalaia, 'my client had to be freed immediately after the decision of the Constitutional Court. No any additional decision was required, nor administrative nor judiciary. But the authorities, whether the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance, the Prosecutor’s Office or the Tbilisi city court, all asked for more time for consideration, obviously in order to delay the release of Mr Ugulava.'
The most blatant attempt to prevent Ugulava's release came from one of the nine Constitutional judges, Merab Turava, who was appointed last March by lawmakers from the ruling coalition. Turava refused to sign the decision made by his court, first on the pretext of ill health and then by claming that he actually needed more time to examine the verdict.
This gloomy picture became even bleaker when the judges of the Constitutional Court came under pressure. 'Certain individuals are rallying outside the judges' homes, blocking it and making threats and calling for physical retribution, endangering the security of members of the Constitutional Court, as well as that of their familes,' stated Giorgi Papuashvili, Chairman of the Constitutional Court, on 18 September.
These protesters were described by observers as members of pro-government groups, who were accusing Papuashvili of being a 'friend' of UNM and of taking a decision 'against the state'. 'Such illegal behaviour did not lead to strong statements from the government as I would have thought,' complained Eka Gigauri, Executive Director of Transparency International Georgia. The outcry pushed Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, after reminding everyone that the Constitutional Court’s decision should be enforced 'immediately by the common courts', to denounce an attempt by 'some people' (the opposition) to 'politicise the judicial processes'
Ugulava was finally released the evening of 17 September. But only for 24 hours. On 18 September, late evening, Ugulava was arrested inside the court building, where he was sentenced for allegedly having siphoned off 4.1 m Georgian lari (£1.1 m) of public funds by creating 760 fictitious job positions to reward UNM party activists in 2009.
'Despite the incapacity of the Tbilisi city court to prove the culpability of my client within 14 months, even within two years in this case,' observes Beka Basalaia, 'the court managed to sentence him to four years and six months. And you know what? It happened the day after he was released.'
Ugulava originally received a nine-year sentence, but it was reduced by half under a December 2012 amnesty act. Davit Kezerashvili, former minister of defence under Saakashvili, was acquitted (in absentia) in the same trial. Ugulava and Kezerashvili were both acquitted the same day from another set of charges concerning the takeover of Imedi TV, a privately-owned channel, in 2008. Mikheil Saakashvili was also implicated in this case.
A creeping revenge?
Keen observers of Georgian politics could have predicted the unexpected decision of the Tbilisi city court. Two prominent MPs from the ruling Georgian Dream ruling coalition, Giorgi Volski and Tamaz Matchiuri, predicted on 18 September that Ugulava would spend the next night behind bars.
Since charges were launched against UNM’s main leaders, including Vano Merabishvili, former minister of Internal Affairs, who was jailed for five years in 2014, suspicions have been raised about how Georgian Dream has promoted selective justice aimed at its political opponents.
Former President Mikheil Saakashvili of the UNM remains a deeply divisive figure in Georgian society today. Photo: Maxim EdwardsGrounds for suspicion have been reinforced by several statements made by government officials. In December 2012, Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani explained why she had returned to Georgia from France, where she had been working at the European Court of Human Rights, saying that 'one of my biggest goals has been attained. It was to defeat the [United] National Movement so that it has no political future as a ruling party, and this makes me very happy.'
This declaration was perceived as unwise, given Tsulukiani was speaking about political opponents who – although their government had serious shortcomings in terms of human rights, rule of law, and judicial independence – left their seats after a mostly democratic and peaceful transition of power (something extremely rare in the post-Soviet space).
'The UNM is not a party of angels. They made a lot of serious mistakes that certainly have to be dealt with by law,' said a western diplomat under condition of anonymity. 'But they also did a lot for this country, which has changed incredibly, and mostly positively, during the two Saakashvili mandates. Trying to eradicate UNM from the Georgian political landscape is the worst thing to do for the democracy in this country, whether or not you like the party.'
Georgian Dream members constantly remind society of the 'crimes' of their opponents. Most observers of Georgian political life think this is all about revenge.
Georgian Dream coalition members constantly remind society of the 'crimes' of their main opponents. Most observers of Georgian political life think this is all about revenge.
Some suggest that the country is not rooted enough in democratic culture, while others point out that Saakashvili’s team was very unfair with Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire backer of the Georgian Dream coalition, who promised in October 2011 to remove Saakashvili from power (and succeeded).
Prior to the 2012 parliamentary election, the authorities created many obstacles to Ivanishvili, accusing him of being a Trojan horse for Russian interests and restricting his ability to finance his campaign. This campaign culminated in depriving Ivanishvili of his Georgian citizenship.
An interest in Russia?
That said, the geopolitical dimension should not be excluded from consideration. Vladimir Ivanidze, an investigative journalist, has a theory: that it is not at all certain that Ivanishvili has sold all of his businesses in Russia, as he declared to have done in mid-2012.
'In my investigation, I gathered initial evidence about how one of his main Russian assets, Doctor Stoletov, his company active in the pharmaceutical area, was merely transferred to figureheads,' explains Ivanidze.
'I don’t have the final proof, but my research led to some Georgians such as Omar Gurtskaya. Gurtskaya is connected to many people surrounding Ivanishvili, such as Hannes Kuusmik, an Estonian citizen. Gurtskaya co-owns Imperia Pharma, a company registered in Gilbraltar but enjoying curious success in Saint Petersburg.' This success in Russia is quite obviously linked to cooperation with Sergey Matviyenko, the son of powerful Chairman of the Russian Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko. The sale of his [Ivanishvili's] big bank Rossiysky Kredit also raises questions – its owners are well-known people from Ivanishvili’s entourage.'
There is also the case of Ivanishvili’s largest agricultural holding in Russia, Stoylenskaya Niva, which he declared as sold before the 2012 elections to an American investment fund. 'I discovered that this fund has no history and that the people who head it are associated with current Minister of Energy Kakha Kaladze,' Ivanidze reveals.
'After all,' concludes Ivanidze, 'why would Ivanishvili have been allowed to remove his business from Russia at the very moment when he was becoming a major actor in Georgian politics?'
Could destroying the UNM be part of Ivanishvili's agenda to offer something to Vladimir Putin, allowing the Georgian oligarch to finally remove his assets from Russia? 'In Russia in the 1990s, assets were always acquired by dubious means,' says Ivanidze. 'So the real question is: to what extent is an oligarch the real master of his assets?'
As political scientist Jeffrey A. Winters suggests in Oligarchy, 'the common thread for oligarchs across history is that wealth defines them, empowers them, and inherently exposes them to threats. The existential motive of all oligarchs is wealth defence.' Oligarchs in Russia are certainly no exception. By bringing Putin the heads of UNM leaders – meaning the most radically pro-Western people of the Georgian political landscape – Ivanishvili could expect some reward from the Kremlin, for him and for his country.
There is no proof to corroborate this hypothesis so far. But as Ugulava goes behind bars, the possibility would be foolish to ignore.