Character assassination turned literally into death yesterday as Georgia’s Security Council Secretary, Nugzar Sajaia, committed suicide with his service weapon. Sajaia, along with other key aides to President Eduard Shevardnadze, had in recent days been targeted for defamation by openly pro-Moscow figures in Georgia. Shevardnadze, indignantly denouncing the use of “moral terror,” praised Sajaia as an impeccably honest man, a true patriot and highly competent official. The president expressed sadness over his top aide’s “loss of nerve.” Russian state-controlled television saw fit to hint at “problems of an intimate nature” with the deceased official.
Sajaia, who was 60 and held the rank of lieutenant general, had held the post of Security Council secretary since its creation in 1995–an unusually long tenure, reflecting Shevardnadze’s full confidence in his abilities. And these marked Sajaia–at least in the view of Presidential Chancellery officials–as a potential successor to Shevardnadze, whose term expires in 2005. Earlier this month, a slander campaign against Sajaia and Intelligence Department chief Avtandil Ioseliani was launched by politicians Boris Kakubava and Jemal Gogitidze as part of an ongoing effort to corner Shevardnadze himself.
Sajaia was accused of having organized both the assassinations of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, National-Democratic Party leader Giorgi Chanturia and Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Gia Gulua in 1993-95, and the assassination attempts on Shevardnadze in 1995 and 1998. Ioseliani has been accused of having repeatedly plotted to assassinate Ajaria’s leader Aslan Abashidze, who doubles as leader of the Georgia Revival Union. Both Saijaia and Ioseliani were also accused of maintaining covert links with Chechen insurgents in Russia and the Pankisi Gorge and with Georgian guerrillas in Abkhazia. But this stream of accusations, launched in speeches and press interviews, has not included any supporting evidence.
Kakubava, leader of a militant dissident faction of Georgian refugees from Abkhazia, is widely considered in Tbilisi as an agent provocateur of Russian intelligence services. Shuttling between Georgia and Russia, he incites the refugees against Shevardnadze, whom he accuses of doing too little to regain Abkhazia. Insisting that only close reliance on Russia can bring Abkhazia back to Georgia, Kakubava supports the retention of Russian “peacekeeping troops” there and has recently been warning against the “danger” of NATO troops being deployed. The other accuser, Gogitidze–who targeted Ioseliani primarily–is the Revival Union’s floor leader in the Georgian parliament. Revival’s and Ajaria’s leader, Abashidze, is a pro-Russian politician with close links to the Russian military based in Ajaria.
Kakubava and Gogitidze launched these accusations at a turbulent congress of refugees from Abkhazia on February 15, also demanding both Shevardnadze’s and Ioseliani’s resignation, and leading the acclamation by part of the congress of Abashidze as Abkhazia’s would-be savior. They then continued the press campaign until the very day of Sajaia’s suicide. Kakubava, Gogitidze and Abashidze himself habitually function as remotely controlled hotheads, in a political environment hardly short of the genuine article.
In an emergency session on February 25, the Security Council ordered the Prosecutor General to investigate the circumstances that led to Sajaia’s suicide. State Security Minister Valery Khaburdzania remarked on television that the “moral terror” of which Shevardnadze had spoken, may have been orchestrated by intelligence services of “that type of country that deal such blows in order to weaken the state and change its leadership through any available means.” The allusion to Russian intelligence became clearer still when Khaburdzania confirmed that the role of “certain forces in Russia” is among the tracks being investigated.
Sajaia’s predicament represents in many ways the predicament of Georgia itself. In his capacity, Sajaia bore the full brunt of the pressures–military, political and psychological–that Moscow applies on Georgia by using the problems in the Pankisi Gorge, Abkhazia and Ajaria, as well as the dysfunctionalities of Georgia’s own political system. This month, top Russian officials turned up the pressure for a “security operation” in and beyond Pankisi, using a new type of argument: that “it could not be disproved” that Osama bin Laden might be hiding there. Russia’s foreign affairs and defense ministers, Igor Ivanov and Sergei Ivanov, were simply the highest officials to use this sort of argument. General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the General Staff, publicly asked Georgia to authorize a Russian military intervention.
That pressure continues unabated and may even increase with the advent of spring weather. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan demonstrated the absurd length to which Moscow is going with the bin Laden argument. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, in response to the journalists’ leading questions, used exactly the same words as the Ivanovs, only to speculate that no one can disprove bin Laden’s presence in the Armenian-controlled Karabakh, and implying that an antiterrorist operation would therefore be appropriate there.
In Abkhazia, Shevardnadze has been pressured into actually applying to the CIS to renew the Russian “peacekeeping troops'” mandate unchanged, after Georgia and its president had spent a great deal of effort and political capital to have that operation internationalized, or at least the mandate changed so as to ensure the repatriation to Abkhazia of the increasingly flammable Georgian refugees. The effort failed conclusively after Moscow prevailed on members of the UN Security Council to issue an emphatic blessing of “CIS peacekeeping troops,” also directing Tbilisi to solicit their prolongation. Georgia is being asked to do so at a “special” CIS summit, scheduled to be held in Almaty on March 1. Shevardnadze was due to go through that humiliation, but may now skip the summit because of the mourning over Sajaia.
In Ajaria, Shevardnadze seems to have little choice but to make tactical deals with Abashidze, who controls the second-largest force in the Tbilisi parliament, following the disintegration of the pro-presidential Union of Georgia’s Citizens. The UGC’s leading pro-Western and pro-reform politicians, exasperated by Shevardnadze’s failure to deal firmly with corruption, abandoned the party or otherwise distanced themselves from the president. This has left Shevardnadze dependent on deals with the pro-Moscow Abashidze. The latter exploits this situation in order to weaken the president even further, for example by having his party rival demand the ouster of top presidential lieutenants, and by dealing with Moscow directly over Shevardnadze’s head. Sajaia had to deal with all this every day on every front, as does Georgia itself. Sajaia’s demise is a warning of the threat to Georgia and to Western strategic interests in that country (Prime-News, Georgian Television, Rustavi-2 TV, Interfax, NTV, February 22-25; see the Monitor, January 10, 18, 25, 29, February 6, 18).
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