April is the start of local election season in Georgia. In any Georgian election, as the ones scheduled for June, we can expect fistfights, recriminations etcetera, but this time things are getting particularly heated in the west of the country, especially the Samegrelo region, which borders the Russian-friendly breakaway region of Abkhazia.
The campaigns are proceeding as usual, with scuffles between members of the Georgian Dream “Freedom Movement” and the formerly ruling United National Movement breaking out in Anaklia, a seaside resort with a sordid history.
A verbal exchange between the two groups turned nasty when Freedom Movement members pelted cars carrying UNM members with eggs, but although much was made of it this form of protest against the UNM is now quite common, having been seen in Tbilisi and various other cities where the UNM tries to mobilise the population by holding rallies.
The Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, the major party in the ruling GD coalition, has said in a written statement that it distances itself from such incidents. It said that it is “inadmissible to use violence in expressing political views.” This forms a stark contrast with the UNM’s protection and promotion of violent criminals such as Mkhedrioni-era gangster Nika Rurua, a hardcore killer who, having been exiled from the country for being a murderer, he was brought back by Mikhail Sakkashvili to be Culture Minister. But there are signs that fine words may no longer be enough.
Many promises were made by the Georgian Dream government elected in 2012, and the people wholeheartedly trusted former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, who invested his personal fortune in a flurry of development and charitable activities. Now he has voluntarily stepped down, replaced by the nonentities President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili as Ivanishvili considered these men better and less threatening than the devils people know/ But things are less clear than before!
The Georgian Dream has not put more money in people’s pockets, and nor has it restored justice to those wronged by the UNM regime. It is not terrorising the population as the UNM did, but only a few who are actually responsible for the reign of terror is brought to justice.
Meanwhile the West, especially the Americans and Europeans, are moaning about “selective prosecution” in Georgia. So are the people, but for them the phrase has the opposite meaning. The West is objecting to former Ministers being prosecuted. Georgians are objecting to the fact that they are not all in jail, removed from their lives, so that the country can rebuild as a democratic state with a clean conscience and move forward.
The UNM is now threatening the people. It cries persecution every time its crimes are revealed, though no one else could have committed them, and keeps saying it will return to avenge this persecution by any means possible. To general consternation, the failure of the new government to cleanse the country of its criminal recent past is giving the same dirty hands the chance to make an against all odds comeback.
Revolution or De-Evolution in Samegrelo, West Georgia
Samegrelo is a key local election battleground. Historically speaking, “so goes this region so goes the rest of the country”. In Samegrelo it seems that many will be voting in support of the former government, out of protest at the failure of the new government to investigate a string of murder cases such as those of Gogi Kvaratskhelia, murdered in 2013, and Gogita Abuladze, who disappeared without a trace in 2012, assumed kidnapped and murdered, among many others.
This does not indicate that Samegrelo voters like the UNM. It shows that the local clan is still too powerful to ignore. Georgians do what is expected of them at election time, regardless of what they might think or want, because they have been brought up knowing the consequences of stepping out of line. The threat posed by the local UNM guys is more powerful than the unfulfilled promise the government made to sweep them away. The UNM is making a comeback, not because it has changed but because it hasn’t.
Much of the problem is that the new government left many of the former police officers, security ministry staff and court officials in place. Justice is not being served because there are too many conflicts of interests involved. Investigating cases and bringing prosecutions would not be healthy for those who still have their jobs.
Megrelians are ethnic Georgians but speak their own language, not understandable to Georgians from outside the region. Consequently they do their own thing, and have a greater degree of effective local autonomy than other Georgians. This has created a situation where the Samegrelo region operates under a system of “tribes and bribes” and tightly knit systems of political and economic patronage. Exactly the system the UNM tried to inflict on the whole of Georgia. Megrelians may not like the UNM, but they understand it only too well.
Rapsheets of colourful characters
The list of colourful characters standing for the UNM in this region is long. It includes Roland Akhalaia, who was charged on April 11th on two counts of exceeding his authority while serving as Chief Prosecutor of the Samegrelo region in 2009. Specifically, he is accused of extracting money from the wife of a convicted man as an alternative to a plea bargain. The bribe was paid to a business he has close connections with and used solely for commercial purposes. There are other many instances where foreign businessmen were forced to purchased high priced vehicles and donate them to the government in lieu of more direct old fashion bribes.
Akhalaia is now an MP, and as such once had immunity from prosecution, but this has recently been stripped. He is most famous as the head of the Akhalaia clan, which has ruled the region with an iron fist and is allegedly responsible for a wave of killings and disappearances and sponsored terrorist attacks dating back years.
Roland Akhalaia is father of former Defence Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who has been behind bars since November 2012. Bacho Akhalaia was acquitted in two trials but found guilty in a third one, again only to be pardoned last year by Saakashvili. However yet more charges are now being brought against him, and he is in pretrial detention with even more charges waiting to be added.
Akhalaia’s other son, former senior Interior Ministry official Data Akhalaia, was found guilty by the Tbilisi City Court of exceeding his authority in a case related to the beating of policemen in 2005 and sentenced to 3 years and 9 months in jail in absentia. However he is not serving this sentence as he is still at large.
The Akhalaias were very visible in Western Georgia. They and the law enforcement bodies would hold court at a posh Western standard hotel in Anaklia – more in the manner of a Mafia cartel than a public administration. At least two murders and one disappearance are connected to this seaside resort, including that of Giorgi Pochkhua, a 27-year-old actor who was murdered in Anaklia on July 14. His relatives are now demanding a reinvestigation of his case.
Another well known local figure is Tengiz Gunava, now running for head of Zugdidi municipality for the UNM. He was formerly head of the Samegrelo police department and also chaired the general inspectorate of the Interior Ministry. Although under investigation by the new government, then-President Saakashvili appointed him Governor of Samegelo “to retain what the former government built here”.
Arrested for possessing weapons and drugs soon afterwards, he was released on bail claiming the charges against him were fabricated. Five policemen involved in that case were subsequently sacked. He was then rearrested on charges of embezzlement of large quantities of state funds and 3,000 litres of petrol but again released on bail.
Eventually he was convicted of malicious wounding after shooting his own driver and a senior police officer in the feet after a scuffle. He was eventually sentenced to eight years in jail, reduced to four years under a general amnesty. He was nevertheless pardoned by Saakashvili last July and his conviction expunged from the record.
Saakashvili even went as far as to describe him as a hero of the 2008 Georgian-Russian War and a great patriot. He was welcomed by UNM members on his release. He is campaigning with a sense of impunity and demanding a new lease of life.
Candidate Gunava talks freely to the press and radio about a “new campaign” of persecution against him, having been once again called to the prosecutor’s office following the testimony of a former policeman, who was arrested for illegal storage of weapons at the time Tengiz Gunava was the Chief of Police.
Gunava recently stated in an interview with FM Abkhazia, “Everyone in the Ministry of Internal Affairs knows what this former officer was doing – he was suspected of selling the drugs that were found during the operation. The weapons were also discovered in his house. I do not know what he is accusing me of now. I was called to the Prosecutor’s Office on the basis of the anger of a former policeman. During my work in the police a lot of drug dealers were arrested and they all say they are not guilty. It turns out I have to go to the Prosecutor’s Office every time someone says a foolish thing,
“This is a classic wave of persecution, and I believe that current Georgian PM Irakli Gharibashvili,and others are behind these crackdowns, inter alia,” he said.
What Gunava does not say is that the weapons cache found while he was Chief of Police could not have been the work of one man. It contained a large quantity of ammunition, explosives and explosive devices, grenades, automatic rifles and other weapons, and also psychotropic substances including heroin and cocaine.
Alongside these items were illegally obtained archives of personal information about opponents of the UNM government. The UNM were intending to be detained on false charges if they had managed to rig the 2012 elections to their usual standard.
Video footage of severe torture and sexual violence were also found, and handwritten notes which incriminated various UNM figures in these actions and creating this weapons and drugs stockpile. There was also a system of torture sites, safe houses and underground torture chambers where those who opposed Mikheil Saakashvili were taken and subjected to beatings and male on male rapes.
These were carried out by Temur Ublia, a mentally handicapped person who would be transported by enforcers of the UNM to terrorise the local population. It is not plausible that all this was the work of one rogue police officer but part of a larger pattern of murder and torture, and with outside players involved.
The UNM clearly knows what all has been done and organised things, as it immediately accused the government of trying to divert attention from its own failures by announcing the discovery of this weapons cache rather than expressing of the disapproval it should have done, as the ruling party at the time it was created, the party ultimately responsible for the fact it was there.
Some pundits claim that “there will be a Ukraine like revolution is planned for Georgia with burning tires and snipers, and it will start with support from West Georgia.” Sources claim that even piles of old tires have been purchased to be used by Saakashvili supports for massive Ukraine like protest tentatively planned for Tbilisi in May and June.
Meanwhile a concerted effort is being made to draw attention away from the expected destabilization by foreign spin doctors who are diverting attention by focusing on the ethnic Armenian populated regions as the next potential flashpoint.
Worse Than the Devils They Know
No one really believes the UNM stories, but people know they get things done, whether they like what they do or not. The present government is not doing enough to meet expectations, which were high after the first democratic change of government in Georgia’s bloody history. They had realised by then that the Rose Revolution was a staged production by the West, funded and orchestrated by the NED, the National Endowment for Democracy.
But even with all this goodwill behind them, the new government has allowed the UNM to gain the upper hand in spite of its known record. In every country governments are accused of not doing enough, of ignoring people. But in Georgia there are too many specific cases of government inaction. In a small country, too many people know someone who has been let down by the coalition they thought was about justice.
Take, for instance, the disappearance of Gogita Abuladze. His mother recalls how Malkhaz Pachkoria, the Head of Counterintelligence for the Samegrelo region, tried to trick her son into visiting Abkhazia, and meeting so-called representatives of Russian special services, so that they could carry out terrorist attacks in Georgia proper.
“I, Mrs Tsinara Abuladze, with my daughter Manana, met the Minister of Internal Affairs, Irakli Gharibashvili [now Georgian PM] in August 2013. He said he would find out what had happened to my son within 20 days, but till now, [last week] no results have been forthcoming. When I heard that Gharibashilvi had come to Anaklia I wanted to meet him, but was prevented by his security staff, who twisted my hand.”
She was then informed that a meeting would be held with a top official in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and then a personal meeting would be set up with the PM.
“Soon I realised they were giving me the runaround. Instead of a meeting with Irakli Gharibashvili I got a meeting with the Minister of Energy. He didn’t know anything about my son’s case. I was cheated by them. I can tell you that the Freedom Movement will lose the local election here because they know what happened to my son but don’t want to tell me, or let the people know, what happened to him and so many others. It is clear to me that they are on the side of Malkhaz Pachuria and the others.”
Even when a foreign journalist, followed this up by contacting the former Head of Counterintelligence in April Malkhaz Pachuria, as part of the research for this article, he immediate refused to give a face-to-face interview about Gogita Abuladze’s disappearance and status of the investigation.
He therefore turned down a golden opportunity to give his version of events, and also explain what happened to Gogia Kvaratskhelia, Eldar Kobalia, and Jimi Megrelidze. Jimi was one of earlier victims of the former system, who was allegedly tortured and then finished off in the hospital. A young wife and child were left behind. http://old.media.ge/en/node/35393
In these cases widows and children are also victims. In some family members have had to escape to Russia, as in the case of Gogita Abuladze. His two children, a son of 20 and a daughter of 22, now work in Russia. They don’t have the means to continue their studies, but their families feel they are more secure there, given the lack of will to find truth and justice in Georgia.
Source of all evil
Almost everything that goes on in Zugdidi, and in the Samegrelo region as a whole, is directly or indirectly connected with the much hated police. Ask a few honest policemen off the record, and they freely share the names of some known criminals still working for the Zugdidi police: Irakli Akhalaia, Temur Toria, Irakli Jobava, Lasha Ekonia. This is the legacy of the Gunava years, and the population has been given nothing better.
As one man from Tsalenjikha, a small regional town, added: “people can see all that is going on here, they can see the difference between white and black … they can see the differences between the parties and the continued game.”
Georgia is not a true multiparty democracy, as the system is a compromise at the end of the day – the same vested interests are cohabiting, whatever their colours. Nationalism is being used as a convenient distraction and the alleged wide choice between the parties is misleading.
The populace is now faced with choosing between two evils – .open criminality or failed justice. If they start choosing the former, will the latter be able to smarten up its act? If not, where can Georgia go but down?
It is no longer a question of multi-party democracy but how the vested interests will divvy up what remains of the hopes, aspirations and dreams of ordinary Georgians.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.