A dozen activists of pro-Moscow groups in Georgia are being held in pre-trial custody for a period of up to two months; and two others have been freed on bail, pending trial. They all face charges of treason and conspiracy to overthrow the government and seize power by force. The 14 are part of a batch of 29 pro-Moscow activists who were arrested on September 6 at various locations in Georgia for questioning. A sizeable arsenal of weapons and explosives was seized from the head of the Samegrelo branch of the Justice Party, a pro-Russia fringe group.
Furthermore, during the night of September 8-9, former special-force Alfa unit officer Alexander Chumburidze was arrested in Tbilisi while carrying 400 grams of TNT and a detonator outside the governing United National Movement’s central office, apparently intending to cause a blast there. Chumburidze is affiliated with both the United Communist Party and the Justice Party, which are led respectively by ex-Soviet General Panteleimon Giorgadze and his son Igor Giorgadze, former chief of Georgia’s state security. The Moscow-based Igor Giorgadze is wanted by Georgia as presumed organizer of the 1995 assassination attempt that injured then-president Eduard Shevardnadze in the State Chancellery in Tbilisi.
According to testimony by some of the accused, they planned to launch demonstrations in Tbilisi and other locations at the onset of the cold season, under the guise of protesting against social hardships. The president and government of Georgia were to be blamed for causing those hardships through “anti-Russian policies” that resulted in energy shortfalls and the closure of Russia’s market for Georgian products. Daily demonstrations in Tbilisi were to turn into a round-the-clock rally outside the parliament building, calling for the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili and dissolution of parliament and the holding of new presidential and parliamentary elections (which are only due in 2008). As envisaged in these discussions, a sudden shooting incident would provoke the crowd to turn violent and move against the State Chancellery (seat of the presidency and government), where gunmen infiltrated into the crowd would attempt to seize the president and government and parliamentary leaders, and if necessary to assassinate the defense and internal affairs ministers. The planning discussions also envisaged financing of these actions through Igor Giorgadze from Moscow.
A seemingly well-financed fifth column operation took shape in Georgia this year. It aims for regime change as a maximal, however unrealistic objective; and for causing political and economic instability as the minimal objective. The movement does not include the parliamentary opposition or any genuine political parties. Instead, it is limited to minuscule groups outside the political system. These groups include: The two would-be parties led by Igor and Panteleimon Giorgadze (see above); the Justice party’s youth group, headed by a Giorgadze relative; the “Anti-Soros Public Movement,” headed in Tbilisi by Maya Nikoleishvili, agitating against U.S. policies in the region; a self-styled “Conservative Monarchist Party”; Moscow-connected supporters of Ajaria’s former ruler (until 2004) Aslan Abashidze, who has found a haven in Russia; and “Forward Georgia,” a group of veteran officials of parliaments and governments from the 1990s. One of the Forward Georgia leaders, Irakli Batiashvili, has been held in pre-trial detention since late July, when his telephone calls to rebel leader Emzar Kvitsiani in the upper Kodori Gorge, encouraging him to defy Tbilisi, were intercepted and made public.
Igor Giorgadze, a pivotal figure in this emergent fifth column, received political asylum in Russia in May of this year, amid officially orchestrated publicity to demonstrate to Georgians that Russia backs him. Although wanted on a red alert through Interpol since 1995 on terrorism charges, Giorgadze periodically appears on Russian state television channels with inflammatory appeals to the Georgian public. He sometimes shares airtime with Kremlin-affiliated commentators, such as Gleb Pavlovsky who has openly urged resolving all of the Russia-Georgia problems by firing “just one bullet” into Saakashvili.
In Tbilisi, the Igor Giorgadze Charitable Foundation apparently provides one of Moscow’s funding channels to local supporters. The foundation’s head, Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia is a veteran minor politician with many twists and turns in her career. During recent planning discussions and following the arrests, Sarishvili- Chanturia distanced herself from the other activists’ intention to resort to unlawful methods. Instead, she suggested making alliances with some legitimate opposition parties. In a similar vein, Russian officially inspired commentaries are obliquely appealing to Georgia’s legitimate opposition parties, seeking to blur the distinction between fifth-column activities and those of the legitimate parliamentary opposition.
Russia’s state-controlled media and official analysts portray the investigation in Georgia as political persecution and the pro-Moscow activists as innocent victims. In a sudden change of line, apparently to elicit compassion for those arrested, Russian media acknowledge that they represent small and uninfluential groups. The line until now was that these groups were popular and apt to shift Georgia’s political orientation toward Russia.
Resorting to fringe groups and eccentric or discredited figures from a troubled past is a clear sign that Russia lacks political allies of any significance in Georgia. Nevertheless, Moscow persists in its intention to foment disorders in Georgia, exploiting social hardships that Russia’s economic measures against Georgia are designed to exacerbate this autumn and winter. Moscow apparently regards the coming months as its final chance to stop or at least slow down Georgia’s escape from Russia’s grasp.
(Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, 24 Saati, Russian Television Channel One, September 7-13; see EDM, May 30)