Thwarted Coup d'Etat in Georgia?
Opposition and Russia condemn mass arrests of alleged plotters.
By Tina Tskhovrebashvili in Tbilisi (CRS No. 357 14-Sep-06)
The Georgian authorities have detained dozens of political activists who they accuse of plotting a coup, but sceptics say the mass arrests are a sign of creeping authoritarianism in the country.
The 29 people arrested on September 6 were members of Justice – a party founded by the fugitive former security chief Igor Giorgadze – or its satellite parties. Many have been charged with involvement in a plot to overthrow the government, and could face up to 15 years in jail or even life if convicted of high treason.
At a pre-trial hearing, one of the arrested activists, lawyer Maya Nikoleishvili, made some explosive allegations when she gave evidence against the other accused.
Nikoleishvili, who heads the Anti-Soros movement and is a died-in-the-wool opponent of the Georgian government, told the court that the alleged plotters met in May this year to discuss raising an armed rebellion against the government. She was released on bail of 10,000 US dollars, while 12 of the 29 other accused were remanded in custody for two months. The 12 insist they are innocent, and will continue their political struggle.
Two days after the first wave of arrests, police detained Giorgadze’s former colleague Alexander Chumburidze, who they allege was planning to blow up the headquarters of the governing United National Movement party.
Meanwhile, the main suspect, Giorgadze, who has featured on the Georgian police’s wanted list since 1995 when he was charged with attempting to assassinate the then president Eduard Shevardnadze – remains at large. Now living in Russia, he too denies the allegations of a coup plot, describing them as politically motivated.
“The Justice party has never intended to solve political problems by force. This is just political repression,” he told Russia’s TVTs television.
Giorgadze held a press conference in Moscow in May saying he wanted to stage a peaceful “Nettle Revolution” to counter Mikheil Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution of 2003.
“There were, alas, no coup plans,” well-known politician Irina Sarishvili, who now heads Giorgadze’s charitable foundation, told journalists. She called on opposition leaders to stage acts of protest demanding the resignation of the government – a call that has not been widely heeded.
However, other opposition groups have spoken out against the arrests, insisting they are a politically driven attempt to intimidate the government’s critics.
Mamuka Katsitadze of the New Rights party warned that the authorities may “start using these methods in dealing not only with their political opponents, but with other sections of society, including the media”.
Political analyst Gia Nodia was more cautious, saying that the Justice party is not a proper opposition group, and for example “did not even plan to take part in the local government elections”.
“The party – given its composition and many other characteristics – is an appendage of the Russian security services,” said Nodia. “It’s difficult to judge what they were going to do. It’s also difficult to imagine them carrying out a coup d’etat anywhere in the near future.”
Shalva Pichkhadze, also a political analyst, predicts believes a further crackdown on opposition forces ahead of local elections October 5 is possible. “As Igor Giorgadze’s rating is not high in Georgia, it looks as though they are going after second-rank figures in order to scare their main and serious opponents,” he said.
The government has countered the criticism by producing apparently incriminating evidence. Georgian television channels screened footage provided by the interior ministry in which two Justice activists – whose names were withheld – said they planned use money provided by Giorgadze to buy weapons and set up combat units for a September confrontation with the authorities. Film was also shown of Giorgadze supporters receiving payment after taking part in anti-government rallies.
President Saakashvili said the alleged plotters would “get what they deserve under the law, and this will be seen by their patrons, who pinned great hopes on them and provided the funding”.
He added, “If the sponsors behind Igor Giorgadze’s supporters were relying on people like this, everything is all right and Georgia has nothing to be afraid of”.
The reference to “sponsors” – which clearly means Russia – has put new strains on the already poor relationship between Tbilisi and Moscow.
Georgia’s first deputy foreign minister Valery Chechelashvili has said his ministry will ask Russia to disclose the sources of financing for Justice, on the grounds the party was engaged in unlawful activity. “These actions threaten not only our country but also the country the money came from,” he said.
Mikheil Machavariani, deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, says the Georgian political organisations now under investigation received money from the Russian secret services, or as he called them “enemies of Georgia”.
This is one of a number of claims that foreign spies are active in Georgia. At the end of July, following the security operation against rebellious militia leader Emzar Kvitsiani in the Kodori Gorge, Saakashvili called on interior minister Ivane Merabishvili to step up counterintelligence activities because, he said, “the secret services of some countries are deeply engaged in Georgia”.
The first target of this crackdown was Irakli Batiashvili, a leading member of the opposition movement Forward, Georgia, who was arrested on suspicion of supporting Kvitsiani.
The speaker of Russia’s State Duma Boris Gryzlov said the recent events were proof that a “totalitarian regime” was being established in Georgia.
Giorgi Targamadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament’s defence and national security committee countered, “Boris Gryzlov’s statement only proves that the conspirators were financed from Russia, and Russia provided them with ideological guidance.”
Tina Tskhovrebashvili is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi
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