TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Allies of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili — a former prime minister and a provincial governor — were charged on Tuesday with embezzlement and abuse of office in another sign of an ongoing power struggle between the country's top two officials.
After dominating Georgian politics for nine years, pro-Western Saakashvili suffered a humiliating defeat last fall when his party lost a parliamentary election to the Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became Georgia's prime minister.
A constitutional reform further weakened Saakashvili's hand by shifting the government's powers from the presidency to the parliament and the prime minister.
The election was the first constitutional transfer of top executive power in Georgia, and it was hailed as a breakthrough for the post-Soviet region. But problems soon emerged.
Saakashvili's presidential term does not end until October, so he must serve alongside his arch-foe, Russia-friendly Ivanishvili. The two men have been locked in an intense power struggle, and authorities have leveled abuse of office charges against some of Saakashvili's top lieutenants.
On Tuesday, former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, who currently leads Saakashvili's party, was charged with embezzlement and abuse of office charges and arrested him in Kutaisi, a city in western Georgia.
Prosecutors accuse him of taking on the payroll in the Labor Ministry nearly 22,000 party activists whose only job was to canvass for the party in the run-up to October's parliamentary election. Ex-Labor Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, who currently serves as the governor of the Kakheti region, also was arrested along with Merabishvili on the same charges.
Merabishvili, the key architect of Saakashvili's policies, is the highest-ranking member of the president's inner circle to face charges. Prosecutors also accuse him of illegally appropriating a lush seaside residence and using government funds to maintain it and hire personnel. Other charges include his alleged involvement in the police crackdown on a protest in 2011.
Merabishvili's lawyer said he rejected all the charges.
Saakashvili has denounced a series of criminal investigations targeting former officials and allies of his as politically driven. Speaking in televised remarks Tuesday, Saakashili said the decision to arrest Merabishvili was "made on a political level" and warned that it will tarnish Georgia's image in the West.
"Georgia may face a problem of international isolation," Saakashvili said.
Ivanishvili rejected political motives behind Merabishvili's arrest.
"It's a pity that we lost (a chance) to get such president," he said in a sardonic reference to Merabishvili's alleged intention to run for president in an election later this year.
Ivanishvili, who earned his fortune in Russia, has denied Saakashvili's accusations of kowtowing to the Kremlin and pledged to maintain the course toward Georgia's integration with the West.
But he also has pledged to repair the ties with Moscow, which were ruptured in the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war that ended with Moscow recognizing two breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.