In early July, the parliament of Georgia passed a law on establishing the State Security Service (Civil Georgia, July 4). The new body will decouple the intelligence and security agencies from Georgia’s Ministry of Interior. Among its roles, it is tasked with investigating anti-Georgian espionage and sabotage activities. Prior to 2004, the Ministry of State Security existed specifically to deal with such counterintelligence work, but that year it was merged with the interior ministry.
Arguably, Georgia’s Ministry of Interior had not been ineffective to date. On the contrary, during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, all state agencies responsible for state security and combating terrorism showed a high degree of efficiency and success. They uncovered several spy rings (Kavkazvideo.com, November 30, 2010), as well as arrested organizers and executors of a number of notorious terrorist attacks, including the terrorist attack in Gori on February 1, 2005 (Pravda.ru, July 27, 2005). In a few cases, despite the inherent risks, the Georgian security services even managed to arrest criminals on the territories of the Russian-occupied Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (The Messenger, December 10, 2010).
Nevertheless, the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, which later came to power in parliamentary elections in October 2012, accused Saakashvili and the interior ministry of human rights violations. In particular, Georgian Dream claimed the government was using the security services for illegal surveillance of the opposition. To guarantee the de-politicization of the State Security Service, the newly passed legislation envisages the abolishment of the so-called “Officers of the Acting Reserve,” as a vestige of the Soviet era. In Georgia, an Officer of the Acting Reserve was an intelligence officer secretly implanted in an organization in order to supply the government with “special information.” The former head of Georgia’s State Chancellery, Petre Mamradze, told Jamestown that “the tradition of implanting Officers of the Acting Reserve is so strong that neither President [Eduard] Shevardnadze nor President Saakashvili managed to banish it from the security services’ practices.” Mamradze expressed his doubts about the new law’s ability to resolve the problem of the secret services and surveillance. “This sits too deeply in the fabric of our society, which still remains essentially Soviet in its mentality,” Mamradze noted (Author’s interview, July 26).
In addition to fully abolishing the Officers of the Acting Reserve system, the new law on state security will require the government to make public a list of the most sensitive government institutions necessitating special attention from a security perspective.
The second step toward greater transparency and the de-politicization of the State Security Service is a six-year appointment term for the head of the agency. In contrast, the president of Georgia is elected for five years and the prime minister is elected for four. Moreover, the prime minister can appoint the head of the security agency only with the consent of the parliament, while the parliament may legally dismiss the head of the agency even without the consent of the head of government. Lawmakers thus hope that this arrangement will compel all the political forces of the country to seek consensus when appointing the head of the state security agency, whose term can theoretically outlast any single government or presidential administration but is essentially vulnerable to a parliamentary vote of no confidence (Civil Georgia, July 8).
Vakhtang Gomelauri, a former interior minister, will be the first person to head the State Security Service (Civil Georgia, July 22). Gomelauri has a background in the police forces. In 1994–2003, he worked in the Special State Protection Service of Georgia, and in 2003–2013, he served in the Security Police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. During those years, he was simultaneously one of the most influential officers in the personal protection service of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. When Ivanishvili became the prime minister of Georgia in 2012, Gomelauri first became the deputy interior minister and later, in January 2015, the interior minister of the country (Georgianjournal.ge, January 26).
The opposition regards Gomelauri’s ties to Ivanishvili as a red flag. “I have doubts about Gomelauri’s ability to cope with the serious risks that the country is facing. The worst part of his background is his work with Ivanishvili,” United National Movement party parliamentarian David Darchiashvili told Jamestown on July 26. However, some independent experts disagree. Analyst Nika Imnaishvili pointed out: “The background of former interior minister Vano Merabishvili had no initial connections to the interior ministry, but was limited only to close ties to President Saakashvili. Still, Merabishvili turned out to be a highly effective minister and resolved many complicated problems in the process of fighting crime, including terrorism and espionage” (Author’s interview, July 26).
Gomelauri takes the helm of the new Georgian security service at a time when Georgian statehood again faces existential threats. The Russian Federation is continuing to wage a type of “hybrid war” against Georgia, which is reflected in “borderization”—a creeping capture of new territories around the occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see EDM, July 24). The borders of the occupied territories with the rest of Georgia are pretty much entirely open, and there are no guarantees that Moscow will not use Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a springboard for dispatching its agents to Tbilisi and other cities. Furthermore, Russia has ramped up its “soft power.” The latest research by a group of Georgian non-governmental organizations confirms that Russia uses subtle and sophisticated methods to increase its influence in the Georgian media and among non-profit organizations. Moscow allots huge amounts of resources for these activities (Damoukidebloba.com, July 22, 24). The primary difficulty for the State Security Service will be to draw and be cognizant of the fine line between the protection of state interests and respect for civil rights. As the events in Ukraine show, Russian security services tend to use democratic institutions and values, such as freedom of speech, against democracy itself and the sovereignty of neighboring states.
Vakhtang Gomelauri enjoys a positive public image in the Georgian media as a calm and non-aggressive professional. He has never been involved in any scandal, and his name has not emerged in connection to any corruption case. Gomelauri repeatedly stressed his willingness to cooperate with the security services of friendly foreign states during his hearings in the parliament. But it remains to be seen whether the new organization Gomelauri now heads will be able to counter the huge machine that has been crafted by Vladimir Putin on the foundations of the KGB for the past 15 years. Developments around Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be indicative of this struggle.