On Georgia outstripping North Korea
Georgy Kalatozishvili, Tbilisi. Exclusively to Vestnik Kavkaza
Recently a truly popular, spontaneous celebration took place in Georgia: hundreds of political prisoners were released from prisons. Next to massive gates they were met by thousands of relatives and friends. The event was covered by dozens of TV cameras, and all the TV channels showed footage from this event the whole day. Only President Saakashvili was not happy with the event. "There are not 190 political prisoners in North Korea, Cuba and Belarus together," he said after the parliament overrode a presidential veto on a large-scale amnesty law.
Georgia, a member state of the Council of Europe, which President George W. Bush once called "a beacon of freedom for the entire region," suddenly revealed it had 190 political prisoners. Certainly, Saakashvili is now very angry. After all, he has to participate in various international forums, and his "sworn friends" from the Russian delegation might ask him how there can be 190 political prisoners in such a democratically-developed country. One can answer this question by saying something like: "and you torture African Americans," or ask how many political prisoners there are in Russia. However, the point is that the number of 190 will never come up there.
Can this figure be possible in Georgia? It is possible if one slightly adjusts the criteria of the term "political prisoner." Let's for instance look at Iva Chigvinidze, an assistant of the former parliamentary speaker Nino Burdzhanandze. On May 26, 2011, during the dispersal of the Interior Ministry, he was driving Burdzhanandze when she was hastily fleeing from the "battlefield." However, while leaving the scene, the car knocked down and killed one of the police officers. Chigvinidze was tried and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Should he be regarded as a political prisoner or a victim of the "unpopular clique of Saakashvili?"
Let's also look at a former striker of the Georgian national football team and Kiev Dynamo FC, Georgi Demetradze. He was arrested when, in agreement with "thief-in-law" Vato Kipiani (who lives in Kiev), he "beat out" money from people who had lost in illegal betting. The opposition claims that Vato Kipiani was a big enemy of the president, and that he was sentenced to imprisonment as an exemplary punishment.
Expert Vakhtang Maisaia is an author of articles on state security which he was commissioned to write by a European foundation. In doing so, he used his connections in the Georgian Defense Ministry. During the August war he reported detailed information on the movement of Georgian troops, the course of combat operations, and so on. Counter-intelligence suspected that the European fund was actually a part of the GRU, although there was no evidence for that. Can the arrest of an independent security expert be considered political? Or was it only a legal matter?
On May 6, 2009, during the anti-government protests in Tbilisi, the soldiers and officers of the Mukhrovani tank battalion went on strike. They refused to participate in a rehearsal of a military parade on the occasion of Independence Day. They were all arrested and have recently been released.
"Russian spies" are a special category. On November 5, 2010, the Ministry of Interior arrested 15 alleged spies. Almost the whole Georgian Air Force aircrew were arrested on charges of espionage. According to the counter-intelligence agencies, they passed important information to the GRU while bombing Russian troops in South Ossetia. Four Russian citizens, including 63-year-old Yuri Skrylnikov, were also involved in the case. According to the intelligence services, he was the GRU's mole. However, at first Skrylnikov was accused of distributing counterfeit dollars and only then were his actions regarded as espionage.
Some of the recently-released "political prisoners" were activists of political parties, arrested for drug use, possession of firearms and offering resistance to police. They claim that drugs and weapons had been planted, and that the only way they could resist the police was to cover their heads from blows from clubs during street battles from 2007-2012.
Are they all political prisoners? In my view, the key question is the image of authorities: no international organization has ever recognized any of these 190 Georgian prisoners as "political." But if we imagine the arrest of a driver of one of the presidential candidates in Belarus knocking down a policeman during a crackdown on protests, what would the Council of Europe say about his arrest? We can think along the same lines about the Moscow's Bolotnaya Square.
It turns out that there are no solid criteria, only an international agenda woven from many variables, the most important of which is the image of a particular government and its reputation. If Saakashvili had falsified the election results on October 1, had not admitted his defeat and begun to cling to power, then the imprisonment of a football player would be regarded very differently. But there is a change in the power structure, there is a clear democracy. And no matter what the former opposition says now out of revenge, Georgia is still far from being North Korea, and Saakashvili still greatly differs from Pinochet.