Thousands of motorists beeped their horns in Tbilisi and other cities of the country on March 16 signaling increasing public protest against Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili. The opposition said it was a prelude to a protest rally scheduled outside the President’s office on March 17 to demand Merabishvili’s resignation over a high-profile murder case.
Several hours after the horn honking protest President Saakashvili invited three journalists from the leading television stations and held a press conference, which was broadcasted live. He downplayed the opposition’s calls for Interior Minister’s resignation as “very funny” and said that he will strongly support Merabishvili on his way of fighting crime. Saakashvili also said that Merabishvili “is really a very good Minister” and a key person in the process of ongoing reforms in the law enforcement agencies.
Opposition blames Merabishvili of covering up several Interior Ministry officials and ex-officials who are allegedly lined to the Sandro Girgvliani murder case.
President Saakashvili said that murder of Girgvliani and “any case of this kind is my personal tragedy.”
“Of course when Interior Ministry’s officials are engaged [in crime] it makes the crime twice grave. But we also should mention, that case of this kind might occur in England, France, very often [these kinds of cases] takes place in America. And Georgia has responded to this case, like it is being responded in these countries… Everybody who deserved to be arrested are already arrested and if there is someone else [guilty of this crime] they will be held responsible as well and everything will be investigated,” Saakashvili said.
Four officers from the Interior Ministry’s Department for Constitutional Security (DCS) were arrested for suspicion of committing Girgvliani’s murder. Three top level officials, including head of DCS and chief of general inspection of the Ministry were suspended from the office pending investigation.
“There are no untouchables. Everyone, who is guilty, will be punished,” Saakashvili said.
He also spoke much about the success of the Interior Ministry in fighting against crime and ruled out possibility of Merabishvili’s resignation.
“Georgia has never before had such effective police… Could you ever imagined that the patrol [policy] would have such a high reputation?.. Do you think that all these have appeared just from the sky? All these have been done by Merabishvili… by all of us. So we will back police up to the end, up to the end,” the President said.
“[Calls for] the Interior Minister’s dismissal are very funny… Maybe we will bring here in this office Jondi Bagaturia [of the opposition Labor Party], or maybe Shaliko [Shalva] Natelashvili [Labor Party leader], or [Igor] Giorgadze [wanted ex-security chief of Georgia] will be better?” Saakashvili said ironically.
He also reiterated earlier position of the influential parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement party, who alleged that opponents targeted the Interior Minister because of their attempts to thwart the police efforts to fight against organized crime.
“The same people and same number of people are repeating this demand [on the Interior Minister’s resignation] time after time under the different pretexts… I know one thing very well; I know real reason [of these calls for Merabishvili’s resignation] very well: we have touched very well-organized oligarchic, including the Russian oligarchic capital, as well as very serious local mafia interests. Georgia was a country of ‘thieves in law’ [criminal bosses]. Georgia was ruled by several ‘thieves in law.’ Those people who are now shouting loudly are the people who do not like that confiscation of property of ‘thieves in law’ has been launched,” Saakashvili said.
Some opposition parliamentarians have already criticized the President’s statement as a sign of Saakashvili’s failure to assess situation “adequately.”
“I do not think that Saakashvili heard the honking today. I guess that he just fails to adequately assess that the situation is really very serious. I call on the population to gather tomorrow outside the State Chancellery in order to show Saakashvili that there are many of us who protest,” MP Levan Berdzenishvili of the opposition Republican Party said in a late night talk show aired by the Tbilisi-based 202 television on March 16.
Parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement party, who have already expressed their strong support towards the Interior Minister, say that the opposition tries to use “tragedy of the Girgvliani family” for its own political interests.
“Their main goal is to target Minister Merabishvili, as they hope that by toppling of Merabishvili they will achieve toppling of the entire government and maybe even President Saakashvili,” MP Nika Gvaramia of the ruling party said in a political talk show aired by the Rustavi 2 television on March 16.
Political analyst Ghia Nodia of the think-tank Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development told Civil Georgia that Girgvliani’s murder case has already “turned into the most serious crisis for the authorities since the 2004 developments in South Ossetia” when clashes erupted there.
Some observers say that the opposition’s demand from President Saakashvili to sack the Interior Minister has even more far reaching goals. Merabishvili’s dismissal should also lead to a resignation of the entire cabinet, including PM Zurab Nogaideli, as Merabishvili will be sixth Minister replaced in this cabinet since it was approved in February, 2005. According to the law the entire cabinet should resign if one-third of its members change.