The rapid succession of crises this week in Georgia suggests that President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government and its policies are at a critical juncture. On March 27 the government announced that it had prevented a nation-wide prison riot plotted by criminal kingpins. Minister of Justice Ghia Kavtaradze described the riot as “a large-scale, well-planned provocation” against planned reforms of the prison system. “If the attempt had succeeded, the mutiny would have spread to other prisons in the country,” he added.
The special operation to suppress a riot at Tbilisi Prison No. 5 left seven inmates dead and at least 17 injured. Independent sources reported as many as 20 deaths. But the opposition has cast doubts over the official version and demanded an independent parliamentary probe. The ruling party, holding a majority of votes in parliament, decisively voted down the investigation initiative on March 28. But not everyone in the ruling party was happy with how the prison riot was suppressed. Elene Tevdoradze, chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights, criticized prison officials for excessive use of force and failure to prevent the riot when they first learned of the plans (TV-Rustavi-2, Civil Georgia, March 27-28).
The incident allowed the ruling party to once again accuse the opposition of having connections with the criminal world. At an emergency session of the National Security Council on March 27, President Saakashvili hailed the actions taken by the police and pledged to continue the fight against criminal groups (see EDM, January 12).
Meanwhile, speculations are running high that Georgian criminal bosses are plotting to assassinate Saakashvili (see EDM, February 9). Nodar Grigalashvili, a legislator from the ruling National Movement Party, said that a Georgian criminal ring abroad is collecting money to organize Saakashvili’s murder. Tea Tutberidze, of the pro-governmental Liberty Institute, alleged that Georgian criminal bosses who had fled to Russia and Greece are providing assistance to their “colleagues” in Georgia, because they are losing influence at home, including in the penitentiary system. The opposition dismisses these allegations as a “worthless legend” aimed at misleading the public and whitewashing the March 27 prison violence (Media News, March 28; Resonansi, March 29).
Perhaps trying to divert public opinion, this week the Georgian Interior Ministry announced it had found a mole in President Saakashvili’s administration. Simon Kiladze, a 47-year-old employee of the administration’s press service, was arrested March 28 on charges of treason and espionage. Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said that Kiladze had been supplying confidential information about Georgia’s president and other leaders to the “special services of a foreign state” (TV-Imedi, March 28). Merabishvili refused to identify that state, but few people doubt that he means Russia.
Kiladze, who has worked in the State Chancellery since 1995, allegedly began spying in 2004 and received $20,000 in compensation, according to the ministry. An investigation is underway to reveal his sources, because his official job did not provide him with access to classified information. Kiladze was responsible for monitoring the foreign media, although Russian reportedly is his only foreign language. According to the ministry, Kiladze was relaying classified information by e-mail and international mail, which raises questions regarding the credibility of the charges against him. On March 30, Kiladze, who has denied the charges, was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack while under interrogation (Regnum, Trend, March 30). Commenting on the case, Saakashvili admitted to the existence of spy network in Georgia and promised absolute immunity for the moles if they come forward by May 1 (TV-Imedi, March 28).
The third crisis to erupt this week started on March 29. Speaking at the annual meeting of the influential Federation of Georgian Businessmen, Georgian media and financial tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, who claims to be the second-largest investor in Georgia after British Petroleum, openly charged Saakashvili’s government with extorting businesses and putting pressure on the media. As evidence, Patarkatsishvili pointed to the controversial fund kept at the Prosecutor-General’s Office to develop law-enforcement agencies. He claims the fund, which now amounts to GEL 160 million (about $89 million) is financed by compulsory payments from businessmen, who reportedly bought freedom with their contributions. “Some of them did it with cars, some with cash, some with shares,” Patarkatsishvili said.
According to Patarkatsishvili, the authorities were dissatisfied with the freewheeling broadcasts by his television company, Imedi, including objective coverage of the high-profile murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani, in which top law-enforcement figures have been implicated (see EDM, March 9). These reports, according to the tycoon, triggered a governmental audit of his companies in order to force him to make Imedi TV journalists toe the government line. Patarkatsishvili said that in today’s Georgia, keeping silent over the “authorities’ methods” is “equal to a crime.”
Members of the Georgian business elite have distanced themselves from Patarkatsishvili’s allegations. Giga Bokeria, an influential parliamentarian from the ruling party, organized a news conference some three hours after Patarkatsishvili’s speech and described the businessman as a shadowy figure, someone who might sponsor the anti-Saakashvili opposition. Bokeria said that the most dangerous foes the government faces today are criminals, oligarchs, and Russia, alluding to Patarkatsishvili’s connections with Russia.
Meanwhile, major opposition party leaders hailed Patarkatsishvili’s broadside. On March 30, Tbilisi saw the largest opposition rally in more than two years. Some 7,000 protesters, representing different social groups and political parties, rallied outside parliament (Regnum, RIA- Novosti, Strana.ru, March 28-30). They protested the government’s policies in various spheres, including police violence and social issues. They called for the government to resign by May 26. Some Georgian analysts are predicting that businessmen like Patarkatsishvili might either become sponsors of opposition media and political groups, or leave the country (Civil Georgia, March 29).
Today, March 31, police prevented buses carrying some 500 activists from the pro-Russian opposition party Samartlianoba (Justice), led by former security minister Igor Giorgadze, from entering Tbilisi to join an anti-government rally planned to be staged in front of the parliament building (TV-Rustavi-2, March 31).