TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, hoping to ease fears of instability, says he will not try to jail President Mikheil Saakashvili when his rival steps down after Sunday’s election.
In an interview with Reuters on Friday, he reaffirmed a plan to quit as the former Soviet republic’s premier in the weeks after Sunday’s vote and revealed he would nominate a member of his government to replace him, but gave no name.
Opinion polls suggest Georgy Margvelashvili, an Ivanishvili ally, will win Sunday’s vote, a result that should improve prospects for stability after years of upheaval in a country crossed by pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to Europe.
But two European Union ministers expressed fears this week that Ivanishvili might take revenge on Saakashvili for blocking government decisions for months, by pressing for him to be prosecuted.
“The Europeans and Americans ... are giving us friendly advice, which I agree with: that it would not be in the country’s interests if our president goes to jail,” Ivanishvili said in his glass and metal residence overlooking the capital Tbilisi.
He said Saakashvili, catapulted into power by a bloodless revolution in 2003, could face questioning by police when he leaves office and loses immunity from prosecution.
But Ivanishvili said he would not push for an arrest, adding: “It’s bad if a country’s president might go to jail.”
He did not say what Saakashvili might be accused of, although he has previously suggested he might be asked about the death of a former prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, who was poisoned by fumes said to have come from a faulty heater.
His comments were clearly intended to appease two EU foreign ministers, Sweden’s Carl Bildt and Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski, who urged him in Tbilisi last week not to take revenge on his rival though the courts.
Ivanishili predicted Margvelashvili would win 60 percent of votes on Sunday - enough to avoid a run-off. Saakashvili cannot seek a third five-year term because of constitutional limits.
He said his government had run the South Caucasus country of 4.5 million well since his Georgian Dream coalition defeated Saakashvili’s party in a parliamentary election last October.
“The election will be a good confirmation of that,” he said, leaning back in his chair and looking relaxed in a casual blue sweater with an open-necked shirt and jeans.
Ivanishvili, now 57, entered politics two years ago because he was frustrated with Georgia’s course under Saakashvili.
At the time, few people in Georgia knew what he looked like but most knew of his fabulous business fortune, albino sons, private zoo with penguins and zebras, and art collection including works by Picasso, Matisse and Renoir. Forbes magazine has put his wealth at about $5.3 billion.
Ivanishvili managed to unite the opposition. Saakashvili, meanwhile, had lost popularity after failing to carry out all the reforms he had promised, and had dragged Georgia into a disastrous five-day war with Russia in 2008, from which Moscow emerged in control of two rebel Georgian regions.
Ivanishvili said Saakashvili, 45, had no political future in Georgia. But he also confirmed that he himself would carry out a promise he made when becoming a politician to step aside when his job was done: “I’ve done what I had to do.”
He listed his achievements as changing the political landscape, constitutional reforms and launching healthcare, agriculture and private insurance reforms.
Critics say he has achieved little and the faltering economy has not improved, but Ivanishvili scoffed at this.
He declined to say who would be the next prime minister - the most powerful position in Georgia since the constitutional changes - but said he would name his candidate on November 2.
“It will be a member of the cabinet, one of the ministers, a member of our team,” he said.
The president will propose the nominee to parliament for approval after the inauguration, expected on November 17.
“On November 19 or 20, we’ll get a new cabinet and prime minister and I’ll be free (to go) after that,” Ivanishvili said.
Opponents say Ivanishvili may still try to call the shots behind the scenes, and suggest this would be unconstitutional.
“I will not allow myself to ask questions or give orders from the wings,” he said. “If they (the government) want to, they will ring me. That’s okay at the start, but it will gradually happen less and less.”
Editing by Kevin Liffey