This week the Georgian special services celebrated breakthroughs in two high-profile criminal cases. Shortly after arresting a man accused of throwing a hand grenade at U.S. President George W. Bush in May (see EDM, July 25), the Georgian Interior Ministry made arrests in connection with the February 1 car bombing outside the Gori police headquarters in eastern Georgia, which left three policeman dead and 20 civilians wounded. On July 25 Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told a news conference in Gori that officers from the Russian Main Intelligence Administration (GRU) organized the attack. The GRU is subordinated to the Russian General Staff.
According to Merabishvili, on July 17 Georgian law-enforcement officers arrested three South Ossetians suspected of carrying out the Gori bombing. The Georgian officers seized the suspects when they entered an ethnic-Georgian village in the conflict zone.
Merabishvili claimed to have accurate information that the trio were members of the 120-strong subversive detachment that GRU Colonel Anatoly Ivanovich Sisoev set up in June 2004, when he was serving as an advisor to the South Ossetian separatist government. At that time 60 members of the detachment, created from the South Ossetian militia, were drilled in subversive activities first in North Ossetia at the base of the Russian 58th army and then in a GRU base in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.
On July 26, the Georgian Interior Ministry released video footage showing Gia Valiev, one of the three Gori suspects, speaking about the intensive military training that he and a group of Ossetians had completed under the supervision of GRU operatives reportedly quartered with the Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in the conflict zone. On July 25, the ministry issued a video in which Valiev admitted his involvement in the bomb attack. “Actually they formed the Ossetian GRU. Russian instructors came to train us. We only knew them by their first names,” he said.
Merabishvili claimed that Georgian law enforcement agencies are fully informed about the whereabouts of the rest of the terrorists, because they routinely receive such information from South Ossetia. In addition to Colonel Sisoev, the Interior Ministry has identified 13 ethnic Ossetians affiliated with the South Ossetian “power ministries.” Special GRU officers have been dispatched to South Ossetia to drill and compensate these men for carrying out subversive activities. According to Merabishvili, the suspects carried out several cases of sabotage, damaging a high-voltage power line Shida Kartli (eastern Georgia) in October 2004; two sets of power lines in October 2004; a railway in Kaspi district (eastern Georgia) in October 2004; and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline’s radio transmission station in Khashuri district (western Georgia) in November 2004.
Merabishvili revealed that he had given the Russian Ambassador to Georgia copies of all the materials related to the investigation. “I want to express hope that the Russian side will hand over all those suspects to us,” he said. Givi Targamadze, chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security, added that the investigation has proved that Russia is directly involved in Georgia’s internal conflicts and in preparing groups of terrorists.
During a July 26 meeting with Merabishvili and officials from the counter-intelligence service, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that, although the Georgian government has “numerous facts and information to prove” the involvement of Russian citizens in the terrorist acts, it does not want to confront Moscow directly. “We want to have absolute cooperation with Russia in the fight against terrorism,” he said, after emphasizing that the suspected terrorists and uncontrolled territories pose threats to both Georgia and Russia. Saakashvili warned that Georgia “will no longer tolerate” the presence of criminals on the uncontrolled territories. He also cautioned against emphasizing the ethnic origins of the suspects recently arrested in connection with the Bush grenade incident and the Gori car bomb (TV Rustavi-2, www.police.ge, Civil Georgia, July 25-26; Akhali Taoba, Resonance, July 26). Georgian Parliamentary Chair Nino Burjanadze added, “I would like to hope that the terrorist act in Gori was not plotted in the higher echelons of Russian power but on a lower level” (Interfax, July 28).
Some Russian media have taken Tbilisi’s deliberate statements to be a prelude to a new military campaign against South Ossetia. Both South Ossetian and Russian officials categorically denied that their intelligence services were linked with the Gori blast, and they described Tbilisi’s allegations as a provocation. However, in a telephone interview with Rustavi 2 television, Boris Chochiev, South Ossetian minister of special affairs, admitted that a person named “Sisoev” had worked in the separatist government (Itar-Tass, TV-Rustavi-2, July 26). According to Resonance (July 29), Sisoev has been military advisor to South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoiti since 2002. Sisoev was an intelligence officer in the Soviet and then Russian army and retired in 1992.
Georgian law-enforcement officials claim that the terrorist detachment was armed with an “Igla” portable anti-aircraft gun, which they planned to use to shoot down a helicopter. Based on this information, Resonance speculated on July 27 that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s informal visit to Georgia, scheduled for July 26-29, has been postponed due to the potential threat from an alleged South Ossetia-based terrorist squad.
The level of rhetoric is increasing. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov dismissed reports of Russian involvement in the Gori attack as “depressing stupidity,” while Mikhail Mindzaev, interior minister of South Ossetia, delivered his own rejoinder, accusing Tbilisi of involvement in the Beslan tragedy last September.
Some Georgian analysts argue that the Interior Ministry’s evidence does not necessarily mean that the GRU as an organization is guiding the terrorists. An investigation is still needed to clarify whether Russian state or private interests were behind the Gori incident. “We know that many officers of the Russian special services are closely connected with criminal businesses,” analyst Paata Zakareishvili commented (Resonance, July 26).
Tbilisi must now decide whether to pursue the GRU connection or keep it as a bargaining chip with Russia.