The huge scandal which erupted in Georgia following the release of a video showing inmates abused in Tbilisi's Gldani N8 Prison highlighted the obvious: as always, the post-Soviet republic's chances to hold elections in a healthy atmosphere are nonexistent. The former jailer who leaked the hidden-cam video and later fled to Brussels says Georgia's Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaya and minister of corrections and legal assistance Khatuna Kalmakhelidze were fully aware of the practices. An hour after the video was broadcast by the Georgian television, human rights activists and relatives of the inmates flocked to the N8 Prison and, as the next step, blocked Tbilisi's Merab Kostava Prospect, demanding the ouster of the interior minister, the corrections minister, and the chief prosecutor. The Georgian opposition – a coalition led by Georgia's richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili – rushed to draw political benefits from the outbreak of protests, while Saakashvili's administration was quick to attribute the whole story to its rivals' intrigues. Georgian chief prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava said that the escaped jailer who is now on the wanted list arranged for the abuses for money “from a third party” and that N8 Prison inmate Tamaz Tamazashvili, a former police general and, supposedly, Ivanishvili's political partner – acted as a go-between, linking the mysterious “third party” and the implicated detention facility guards (1). In response, Ivanishvili pledged to mobilize the public across the world to make sure that no harm is done to Tamazashvili in the wake of the allegations (2). The constituency does not seem to buy the conspiracy theory put together by the Georgian administration, the impression being that the government reaction only further strengthened the positions of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party.
The Georgian Labor Party put together a curious vision of the events, actually linking Saakashvili and Ivanishvili. Kaha Dzagania, the laborist secretary for ideology, claimed at a September 20 briefing that the atrocities in the N8 Prison had been perpetrated by special forces under Sakashvili's chain of command, with Ivanishvili actually paying for the job. According to Dzagania, Kartu, a bank owned by Ivanishvili, had dished out bonuses to the special forces officers every time they helped disperse anti-Saakashvili protesters. Building on the theory, Dzagania demanded that Ivanishvili compile, based on the bank's transaction papers, a real list of those responsible for the tortures, as that would be the only way to guarantee Georgia against similar crimes in the future(3).
The internal strife within the Georgian ruling group is also cited as an explanation behind the recent developments. Cracks running across Saakashvili's team are an open secret, the stakes in the undeclared competition being the privilege of close association with the president, administrative influence, or money. Now that the end of Saakashvili's term in office looms ahead, the latent conflicts may be switching to an open phase. The spotty human rights record of the Georgian penitentiary system has never been deeply hidden, and, considering that, by multiple accounts, the now displaced minister of the interior Bacho Akhalaya and premier Vano Merabishvili were chronically at odds, attempts to drag the hyper-ambitious Georgian policemaster off the trajectory were fairly predictable. The struggle with no rules, though, is not necessarily played out entirely within the cohort of the Rose Revolution veterans. I. Okruashvili used to be a promising figure no less than Akhalaya, but – regardless of whether he could have been tortured or drugged – it is a given that his career collapsed overnight. Reportedly, the mission which led to the fall of Okruashvili rested with Bacho Akhalaya (in a potentially related scandal, Okruashvili beat up D. Akhalaya, the brother of Bacho Akhalaya, twice in a single day in France).
Statements issued by several Georgian establishment officials were, in fact, indicative of its divisions over the displacement of Bacho Akhalaya. Majority parliamentarian Nuzgar Tsiklauri said hours before it was announced he was confident that Akhalaya was not responsible for the jail incident and went on to condemn calls for the police minister's resignation as a part of the game invented by the opposition. Tsiklauri expressed a view that Kalmakhelidze could be to blame rather than Akhalaya who has had nothing to do with the system since 2007. Overall, Tsiklauri praised Akhalaya's accomplishments during his tenure as a defense official and warned that the opposition hoped to weaken the administration by ejecting the man from his current post (4).
Akhalaya did submit resignation late on September 20, when Kalmakhelidze was already unseated and charges were pressed in connection with the case. Akhalaya's accompanying statement said that he was, as a Georgian citizen, shocked to hear about the abuses in the N8 Prison and that – though he had not been in charge of the penitentiary system for years – he still felt responsible since he had appointed some of the officials running it (5). The same day, head of the Obiektivi media union Irma Inashvili,who is staying in Belgium, said that the abuse video – a total of around 90 minutes in the unabridged version – had been supplied to her from the name of Vano Merabishvili by a former high-ranking Georgian official (6).
Whichever storyline eventually proves to contain a greater doze of realism, it is clear that the Georgian administration faces a serious crash test just days before the crucial poll. Under the pressure from the protesters, Saakashvili had to sacrifice a number of key political figures, and the damage inflicted upon the ruling United National Movement appears to be irreversible under the current time constraints. Ramaz Sakvarelidze remarks that the Movement's campaign is bound to be affected by the disgrace since voting for a political group which “co-authored” the appalling abuses will arguably be out of question for most of the constituency (7). It has to be taken into account none the less that – as the history of the post-Soviet Georgia serially showed – the administrative resources in the republic factor heavily into election outcomes, which, as a result, tend to deviate radically from the public expectations.
The Gldani incident marked the culmination of the electoral battles in Georgia, and, moreover, rendered the situation after the poll completely unpredictable. One thing beyond dispute in the context is that, in any case, prospects for democracy in Georgia dim day by day…