In Samegrelo many will be voting in support of the former government in protest at the failure of the new government to investigate to the end a string of murder cases which are known about, but apparently not worthy of the new government’s attention.
This does not indicate that Samegrelo voters like the UNM or think it will government them well. It shows that the local UNM bigwigs, including the former Georgian president, and especially those with documented criminal connections, are still too powerful to ignore.
As previously reported in this journal, “The threat posed by the local UNM establishment is more powerful than the unfulfilled promise the new government made about effective changes and sweeping them away at the ballot box, once and for all; the UNM is making a comeback, not because it has changed but because it hasn’t.”
Much of the problem is the system that has been Georgia since the 2003 Rose Revolution is running on autopilot. There are not enough well-trained or effective public servants, and the many former police officers, security ministry staff, prison and court officials still in post have no interest in changing things.
There are too many family links and networks of patronage to dismantle overnight. In a country where most struggle to earn a subsistence income no one wants to be pushed from their often financially rewarding positions or see others, who might be able to exact vengeance, removed in the same way.
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. But after the presidential elections he voluntarily stepped down, replaced by nonentities. Only a few would have voted for President Giorgi Margvelashvili or Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili had they not been hand-selected candidates, but Ivanishvili considered such lightweights better, and less threatening, than the devils people know.
The Georgian Dream has not made any appreciable dent in Georgia’s mass unemployment and poverty, 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 of those who are responsible for the reign of terror have been dealt with.
The UNM is now crying foul 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 – revolution included. 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.
“Don Vito” Akhalaia and his sinister family
The list of other colourful characters spearheading this comeback in Samegrelo is long. One is UNM lawmaker, Roland Akhalaia, has been charged on two counts of exceeding authority whilst serving as chief prosecutor of Samegrelo region in 2009, the prosecutor’s office said on April 11. He has impunity as a MP, but a recent parliamentary vote could make him indictable. He is the head of the Akhalaia clan, who ruled the region with an iron clad fist and is allegedly responsible for a wave of killings and disappearances, as well as in the inner circle of consorted “terrorist” attacks dating back years.
Roland Akhalaia is the father of Bacho Akhalaia, Minister of Defence under PM Nika Gilauri (August 27, 2009 – July 4, 2012) and then head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs under Vano Merabishvili (July 4, 2012 – September 20, 2012).Bacho is known to the international press because his name has popped up in Wikileaks files.
In a phone call with then-President Saakashvili preceding Bacho’s appointment, US Deputy Secretary of State Tina Keidenaur expressed concern about his “bad reputation in terms of human rights law”, but Saakashvili vouched for him and insisted on him having a try. Misha’s words must have had an effect, since only one month later (Sep 2012) Ambassador John Tefft reported positively to Washington about Bacho’s first meeting with Tbilisi-based diplomats from NATO member states:
“(…) according to September 2, 2009 cable, the new defense minister ‘wanted to make a positive first impression on the NATO diplomats, many of whom have been skeptical of his appointment.”
The Americans became enthusiastic about him in only a few weeks, praising his will to follow American advice on a variety of topics including restructuring the Army. Nevertheless, Bacho Akhalaia was put behind bars in November 2012. Having been acquitted in two trials, he was found guilty in a third one.
Along with the aforementioned Megis Kardava, Rezav Charbadze and Davit Chakua, he was held responsible of humiliations and inhuman treatment committed against prisoners, notwithstanding an unlawful withdrawal of the convicted Platon Mamardashvili from prison.
Investigations into more violent acts against prisoners are still ongoing. Bacho Akhalaia is also accused of giving unlawful advantages, by abusing his authority, to the persons convicted in the Sandro Girgvliani murder case while they were serving their sentences.
In another moment of suspicious compassion, two weeks before the expiration of his own presidential term, ex president Saakashvili pardoned him on 3 November 2013. Last February 14 the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia announced an appeal to the acquittal of Bachana Akhalaia and Megis Kardava.
Akhalaia’s other son, former senior interior ministry official, Data Akhalaia, chaired the Georgia’s Counterintelligence.
The most important witness against him was Shalva Tatukhashvili, Former Deputy Head of the Unit for Active Measures (Special Force) of the CSD. Tatukhashvili, was found dead in a Tbilisi apartment a few weeks ago, while under witness protection. The autopsy demonstrated that he had consumed a lethal mix of drugs and alcohol.
Lawyers close to the Akhalaia clan accused the Public Prosecutor’s Office of beating him hard to obtain or Dato Akhalai, an allegation vehemently denied by officials. However, a person close to the Akhalaia clan revealed openly.
“The well-informed, though, openly ascribe his death to the ruthless hands and minds of the Akhalaia family, and in particular their ideologist-protector, Tbilisi-based lawyer Romeo Sajaia. No tangible evidence has been made public as yet, and may not be due to the upcoming local elections, but people are not drawing such conclusions, at great personal risk, for nothing.”
What is more, Akhalaia’s lawyers can create coup de théâtre worth of Ngaio Marsh:
Irakli Zakareishvili, the lawyer representing Data Akhalaia who Tatukhashvili testified against, now appears in a role as spokesman for the dead witness’ family, who believe their son was tortured, furthering his main client’s interests and arguing for the torture theory, which invalidates the incriminating testimony.
A video released by the Public Prosecutor’s Office shows Tatukhashvili freely moving in and out of the building, accompanied by his lawyer
Apparently these surveillance videos confirm that the witness voluntarily appeared before the investigators. In addition, a segment from the questioning about Data Akhalaia has been made public, which makes it questionable that the Prosecutor’s Office has something to hide.
What did Tatukhashvili tell the prosecutors which might have provoked such treatment?
He gave details of the Navtlughi special operation, an illegal raid in which three civilians were assassinated in dramatic, if not wild, circumstances. Their names were Murad Artmeladze, Roman Surmanidze and Murad Gorgadze.
He knew what he was talking about – he was part of the commando unit.
Too Many Leftovers
The Akhalaia clan and many leftovers from the former regime are closely linked by a network of lawyers.
Who are they? Who are their local representatives? To dive deeper into such issues will help link the networks of patronage and strong arm tactics used to keep the system running on auto pilot in spite of the fact that it was voted out of office. But who is there to investigate the lawyers except the official bodies still controlled by their clients?
Be as it may, Data was found guilty by the Tbilisi City Court of exceeding official authority in a case related to beating of policemen in 2005 and sentenced to 3 years and 9 months in jail in absentia; Data Akhalaia remains at large.
The most frightening feature of this story is that the arrest of brothers and their associate has not stopped the wave of violent acts against some those convicted and now sitting prisons. What is more, there has been a new wave of rapes, severe beatings and murders in the last few weeks, especially at the Kutaisi Prison “Geguti”. The victims are mostly poor people from the villages, in detention for drug or petty crimes, without any Romeo Sajaia or Irakli Zakareishvili on their meager payroll.
One of them was 26-year old Avto Maisuradze. He was found dead on March 23.
In many parts of the former Eastern bloc, most notably Hungary and Romania, the people who overwhelmingly rejected Communist regimes at the polls have soon discovered that the same individuals are still in power regardless. The ruling class is still the ruling class, just under different colours.
In this respect it can be argued that it is a good thing that UNM criminals are standing for election – they are at least exposing themselves to some sort of public scrutiny. The networks which have allowed this situation to happen, entrenched, shadowy and accountable to no one, are another matter.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.