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Crime Spate Rocks Georgia's Historic Political Transition

A bank robbery in Tbilisi is just one of a number of high profile crimes that have occurred in Georgia in recent days.
A bank robbery in Tbilisi is just one of a number of high profile crimes that have occurred in Georgia in recent days.
TBILISI -- A crime wave is sweeping Georgia -- at least that's what some politicians from President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) would have people think.

Even before the country's October 1 legislative elections ENM figures were claiming the opposition Georgian Dream coalition -- which emerged victorious at the polls -- was connected with organized crime and that their victory would open the floodgates to lawlessness.

Just days before the vote, video and audio recordings were leaked, purporting to document conversations between Georgian Dream leaders and underworld figures. Georgian Dream says the recordings were crude falsifications designed to sow panic.

But in the days following the vote -- even as relations between the ENM and Georgian Dream seemed to be unfolding in a fairly conciliatory manner -- a handful of brazen crimes have some ENM figures saying "we told you so."

"As we know, the leaders of Georgian Dream were in contact with thieves in law [mafia leaders] and were promising them that they would be allowed to return to Georgia," says ENM parliament deputy Nugzar Tsiklauri. "We heard a couple of those conversations in which criminal bosses are saying they would return to Georgia after October 1. And, of course, it is obvious that these conversations were noticed by people who are interested in instability and for whom such transitions provide the best opportunity to act."

Serious Incidents

But in reality it is hard to say how serious the so-called uptick in crime has been. The biggest incident came on October 4, when a single armed man robbed a branch of ProCredit Bank in Tbilisi, getting away with an undetermined sum.

This was followed on October 5 with the burglary of a minimarket in Rustavi and the robbing of a computer firm in Gori. No one was injured in the incidents.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Salome Makharadze conceded the situation was "unusual" for Georgia, but urged caution.

"Yes, it's true there were a couple of serious incidents and it is unusual that we have had three or four major robberies [in such a short time], but to make conclusions, you need to consider a longer period," she said.

Georgian Dream's leader, billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, held a press conference late on October 4 to urge police and other civil servants to continue working through the current transition.

"I would like to ask all public servants -- above all, police officers -- to enforce the laws, to carry out their duties responsibly according to the constitution," he said. "And we promise that the absolute majority of public servants will keep their jobs -- police, prosecutors, special services, everyone. Don't worry. If you haven't committed any crimes...The absolute majority will keep their positions."

Georgian Dream's election victory was historic for a country that has never before seen a peaceful transfer of power through democratic elections. And it created a situation where a fragile coalition must take over the government from the still-powerful ENM and learn to work with President Saakashvili, the ENM's leader, whose term runs until October 2013.

Forming A Government

Political analyst Kakhi Kakhishvili, a Georgian Dream supporter, maintains that the ENM is exploiting -- and might even be encouraging -- crimes in order to secure a political advantage.

"Even before the elections, the ruling party was trying to convince everyone that a victory for Georgian Dream would mean a return to the mafia past," he says. "And now they will try to even provoke these kinds of incidents in order to create the illusion that some underworld representatives have returned to Georgia and they are creating this criminal situation. And then they will say they were warning us about whom we would have to deal with."

Saakashvili, who came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution, oversaw a massive crackdown on organized crime and a dramatic improvement in public safety.

In addition to the purported crime wave, there have been reports of a breakdown of order in Georgia's prisons.

In the days before the election, video recordings showing horrific abuse of prisoners was aired on opposition television stations, prompting nationwide outrage and days of protests.

Several ministers resigned during the ensuing scandal and it remains to be seen whether the new head of prisons can cope with the situation.

Gela Nikolaishvili, a noted defense attorney, told RFE/RL that he has been getting reports of some breakdowns in prison discipline since the video scandal.

"Inmates should not be allowed to communicate from cell to cell, calling each other or visiting one another," he said. "Such cases have been reported to me...There must be order in prisons, although this order must be humane as it is in normal, civilized European or American prisons."

Georgian Dream is currently in the process of nominating a new speaker of parliament and putting together a government. The coalition has said it will make an announcement on October 8, and Saakashvili has said he will approve the candidates that the election victors name.

The country will hold a presidential election in October 2013, which is expected to be hotly contested since Saakashvili is barred from seeking a third consecutive term.

Written in Prague by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by Lela Kunchulia in Tbilisi

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