November 27, 2012

THE LANDMARK victory of an opposition coalition in Georgia’s parliamentary elections Oct. 1, and the quick concession by the ruling party, was a rare triumph for democracy in post-Soviet Eurasia. It also raised a crucial question: Would this small nation on the Black Sea coast become a model of political pluralism in a region of strongmen, or would it follow the path of Ukraine, where the defeat of a liberal government led to the imprisonment of its leaders and a slide back toward Russian-style autocracy?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the new regime, headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, to provide a preliminary answer. Within weeks of taking office, the new government has brought criminal charges against more than 20 senior officials of the previous administration, including the former ministers of defense and interior and the armed forces chief of staff.

Though President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose term does not expire for a year, facilitated the formation of the new government, Mr. Ivanishvili has repeatedly demanded that he resign while hinting that prosecutions of his associates will continue until he does. The new parliamentary majority has stripped funding from the president’s office and pressured members of the opposition to switch sides. Media that were sympathetic to the former government have been intimidated.

Mr. Ivanishvili promised Georgians that he would continue Mr. Saakashvili’s strategy of leading the country toward full membership in the European Union and NATO. Yet warnings from senior E.U., NATO and U.S. officials about “retribution against political enemies rather than the rule of law,” as Assistant Secretary of State Philip H. Gordon put it, so far have seemed to have no effect. On the contrary, Mr. Ivanishvili’s allies are talking about bringing cases against the prime minister he succeeded; the mayor of the capital, Tbilisi; and others.

Georgia’s new authorities say they are forcing long-overdue accountability on a government that was itself frequently accused of abuse of power — and it’s certainly possible that some former officials are guilty of crimes. But a couple of the prosecutions focus on relatively minor offenses or allegations of dirty tricks during the recent campaign. If Mr. Ivanishvili were serious about demonstrating to Western governments that Georgia belongs among them, he would forgo such cases and focus on restoring the confidence of foreign investors in the economy — which has plummeted since his election.

The magnate-turned-prime minister said last week that his first official visit to the United States had been postponed, which is a good thing. As long as he is imprisoning opposition leaders and seeking to monopolize power, Georgia’s new leader should not be welcome in Washington.