A damning statement against UNM secretary general and former PM Vano Merabishvili, posted on a newly created Facebook account late on Monday evening purportedly by his ex-subordinate and former senior interior ministry official, Data Akhalaia, appears to be revealing signs of infighting within President Saakashvili’s UNM party.
Even though the issue whether this statement is really penned by Data Akhalaia or not still remains a source of speculation, UNM senior figures had to react on it with some of them making remarks indicating that they tend to be distancing themselves from Akhalaia brothers – Bacho and Data, who once were influential figures and close associates of President Saakashvili.
Controversy comes at sensitive time for the UNM, which is gearing up for an outdoor rally in Tbilisi center on April 19.
Data Akhalaia led powerful constitutional security department within the Interior Ministry for years and then served as deputy defense minister before the October 2012 parliamentary elections; after the elections he left the country and the new authorities filed criminal charges against him and he is now on Interpol’s wanted list. His brother, Bacho Akhalaia, was prison system chief, then served as defense minister and then as interior minister for few months before the last year’s elections; Bacho Akhalaia is now under arrest and on trial on multiple criminal charges, which he denies. Roland Akhalaia, father of Bacho and Data Akhalaia, was chief prosecutor of Samegrelo region before becoming UNM parliamentarian after last year’s elections.
Before 9pm on April 15 a Facebook account was created purportedly by Data Akhalaia, whose whereabouts are unknown; a statement was posted on that account, shortly after that account was created, claiming that in its behind-the-scenes power struggle against Akhalaia brothers, Vano Merabishvili, a long-time interior minister and then PM for few months since July 2012, plotted number of provocations aimed at targeting Akhalaia brothers, but actually leading to UNM’s defeat in the October parliamentary elections.
The statement purportedly by Data Akhalaia says that he possesses “evidence” showing that Merabishvili was behind planning “adventure” in Lopota gorge, involving a clash between a militant group and Georgian troops in late August, 2012, when Bacho Akhalaia was the interior minister; the statement says that it was arranged by Merabishvili “with the hands” of then deputy interior minister Giorgi Lortkipanidze; allegation echoes claims voiced recently by Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili. The same statement accuses Merabishvili of “creating” prison abuse videos, which emerged two weeks before the October elections; it also accuses Merabishvili of arranging “inhuman treatment” of seven special task force servicemen in August, 2012 when Bacho Akhalaia served as interior minister. Among the charges against Bacho Akhalaia one involves this latter case in which former deputy interior minister Shalva Janashvili is expected to testify against Bacho Akhalaia in the court.
"I do not claim that Merabishvili was in deal with then opposition [Georgian Dream coalition], but one thing is clear - being foolishly convinced in his own omnipotence, Merabishvili assumed that only Akhalaias would have been damaged by his criminal adventures," the statement, purportedly by Data Akhalaia, reads. “I have firmly decided to return back to Georgia together with my friends in the nearest future and to answer to all the questions.”
Irakli Zakareishvili, a lawyer acting on behalf of Data Akhalaia, said he was “authorized to confirm” that this statement was really made by his client.
No other confirmation is yet available to validate that the statement really belongs to Data Akhalaia. Some close associates to Akhalaia brothers say they do not believe the statement was penned by Data Akhalaia.
The statement was reposted from purportedly Data Akhalaia’s Facebook account on one of the most popular Georgian online discussion forums, Forum.ge, at 9pm on Monday; Channel 9, a television station funded by PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, was one of the first from mainstream media to report about this statement in its 9pm news bulletin on April 15; the news about the statement was then distributed by news websites and then was also picked by Rustavi 2 TV by the end of its 9pm news bulletin.
Vano Merabishvili responded to the allegations against him via a Facebook post on April 16, saying: “Regardless of whether the yesterday’s statement was really released by Data Akhalaia or not, we are dealing with such an absurdity that I am not going to seriously comment on it either now or in the future. These allegations are completely groundless delirium. It is obvious that the government needed it in order to hamper by all means planned rally on April 19.”
Tbilisi Mayor, Gigi Ugulava, who is one of the leaders of UNM party, said that it was worthless to comment about the substance of the allegations against Merabishvili because of its “absurdity.” Although he indicated that it was not fully clear for him whether it was really a statement by Data Akhalaia or not, Ugulava hinted that Akhalaia’s associates, who keep their jobs in the Interior Ministry, were now working on targeting UNM activists upon instructions from the new government.
“80% of Akhalaia’s employees, if not even more, are still on their jobs and are now engaged in persecuting political opponents,” Ugulava said.
Ugulava also said that these developments “look very much like” Okruashvili’s case – he was referring to former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, once President Saakashvili’s close ally who turned against the President and UNM in 2007 by leveling serious accusations against his former allies, which he retracted while being under arrest.
Gia Khukhashvili, head of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Development Research institute with close links to PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, said that “Akhalaia brothers were to some extent victims of strict regime of Saakashvili, Merabishvili and [former justice minister Zurab] Adeishvili” – comments which were unlikely to be made by Khukhashvili before the statement purportedly by Data Akhalaia emerged.
Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava said that Khukhashvili’s reaction to the allegations against Merabishvili and his comments on Akhalaia brothers was an indication for him that it was “an orchestrated” campaign directed against UNM’s planned rally on Rustaveli Avenue on April 19.
“During this struggle in which we are today, many people may lose their nerve and some may enter into some kind of deals [with the government]; it will be very regretful if it is confirmed to be the case; it’s obvious that all these developments are related to April 19 [rally],” Ugulava said.
Tea Tutberidze is one of the most vocal supporters of Bacho Akhalaia, actively advocating in his defense, claiming that criminal charges against him are fabricated.
She says she does not believe that the statement released on April 15 belongs to Data Akhalaia; Tutberidze, however, also says that she does not know whether allegations listed in the statement are true or not; she also criticized Vano Merabishvili for not showing public support to his former cabinet member Bacho Akhalaia.
“Unfortunately I’ve heard not a single statement by Merabishvili and some UNM lawmakers in defense of Bacho Akhalaia… which triggers certain questions,” Tutberidze said.
President Saakashvili will be interviewed by Rustavi 2 TV’s political talk show late on Tuesday night and he is expected to comment on these developments during that interview.