Arrests Target Ex-Rose Revolution Leader’s Party
Allegations of an opposition conspiracy heighten the tension in Georgia ahead of a planned anti-government protest. From EurasiaNet. by Giorgi Lomsadze 27 March 2009
With two weeks to go before a planned protest against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, government allegations of illegal weapons purchases and coup conspiracy are zeroing in on the opposition party headed by former Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze. The allegations, adamantly denied by Burjanadze, have kindled public fears of civil strife.
On 25 March, 10 opposition activists – seven allegedly linked with Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement-United Georgia (DMUG), and two with the little-known Movement for the Salvation of Georgia – were sentenced to 60 days of pre-trial detention on weapons and coup conspiracy charges. The 10th individual has been detained on weapons charges.
The allegations have been illustrated by a daily feed of video clips released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs since 23 March.
On 25 March, in the latest installment in what some opposition members have likened to a television thriller series, the ministry released two additional clips in which members of Burjanadze’s party, including the party’s boss for the western region of Ajara, discuss plans to buy guns and recruit armed volunteers to remove Saakashvili from power.
"Civil war is in the interests of Nino’s people," said a man on the videotape, identified as Roin Bugashvili, a former Interior Ministry official and current DMUG member. Speaking in coarse language, Bugashvili tells an unseen interlocutor that guerrilla fighters could be drawn into an anti-Saakashvili uprising by the prospect of being able to loot pawnshops and stores.
The conversation was allegedly shot at the DMUG office in the Tbilisi district of Isani-Samgori. Pro-government Rustavi-2 television reported that the office was shut down after news of the tapes’ release broke.
In a 24 March interview with EurasiaNet, Burjanadze claimed that Saakashvili wants to use the tapes to discredit her party and to dissuade Georgians from showing up at an opposition rally scheduled on 9 April in Tbilisi. Burjanadze alleged that the president has set Georgia’s entire state bureaucracy and government-controlled media against her to accomplish that goal.
"The recent tide of the black PR campaign clearly shows that the government views our political team as the biggest threat; a political threat, that is," Burjanadze said. Burjanadze, a leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution with Saakashvili and the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, parted ways with the ruling United National Movement in 2008.
The government believes that removing the Democratic Movement as a viable political force "will deal a serious blow to April 9 [plans]," she argued. "[T]hey were under the illusion that political parties would condemn Burjanadze’s party and this would sow discord [within the opposition]."
Prominent opposition leaders such as former United Nations Ambassador Irakli Alasania of the Alliance for Georgia coalition and Levan Gachechiladze, the former presidential candidate, have been quick to show support for Burjanadze.
Former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, another opposition leader, has condemned the tapes as a "provocation."
"Such provocations and blackmailing will not help the government to maintain power," Noghaideli said in remarks broadcast on Rustavi-2.
On 23 March, 12 opposition parties gathered at the ombudsman’s office to sign a statement that accuses the government of "patent provocation, attempts to intimidate society and raise questions about the constitutional legitimacy of the 9 April action."
Burjanadze asserted that her party members should be brought to justice if their guilt is corroborated, but added that the videotapes are not sufficient evidence and called for an independent examination of the recordings.
"When a buyer expresses interest in buying a CZ pistol, but a seller aggressively offers a machine gun instead – especially given that [the seller] clearly is a police operative because his face is not shown – of course it is a provocation," she stated.
In comments to EurasiaNet, Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili responded that the tapes’ authenticity is unquestionable.
Questions about the tapes’ production nonetheless persist.
The similarity of a room featured in recordings of two separate discussions between an alleged arms dealer and a Burjanadze activist and a Movement for the Salvation of Georgia activist, respectively, has raised the issue of entrapment.
Utiashvili told EurasiaNet that the ministry had taken the two men into the room, which had been wired with secret recording devices. "We brought them into the same room, which was prepared for that purpose," Utiashvili said.
Another tape of a close, face-to-face street conversation with Movement for the Salvation of Georgia activist Malkhaz Gvelukashvili suggests that Gvelukashvili’s interlocutor, presumably another arms dealer, was wearing a camera.
No mention has been made of arrests or plans to prosecute the alleged arms dealers featured in the tapes. Utiashvili did not elaborate about their role in the apparent sting operation. "The full version of the records will be shown in court," he said, "where everyone can see the authenticity of the tapes."
Snippets from the tapes are being released gradually to explain to the public the reason behind the arrests, Utiashvili added.
Burjanadze told EurasiaNet that she believes the government will soon target her as well.
Questions have already surfaced about the role of Burjanadze’s husband, Badri Bitsadze, the former head of Georgian customs. In an Interior Ministry recording, DMUG member [Bugashvili] states that he is recruiting thugs at Bitsadze’s behest. In a 25 March interview with Maestro television, Bitsadze, long a government critic, said that the contents of the tapes were "blown out of proportion."
Utiashvili, however, told EurasiaNet that "at this stage" the government’s investigation is not probing the possible involvement of either Burjanadze or Bitsadze in arms purchases.
How long the ministry’s investigation will continue remains unknown, although opposition members contend that it is synchronized with the upcoming 9 April demonstration. DGUM staff told EurasiaNet that one of the detained activists, Nugzar Gogrochidze, was released on 24 March. EurasiaNet could not confirm the claim.
Meanwhile, a public debate about the tapes is growing. On pro-government Rustavi-2, prominent public figures expressed concern about Georgia plunging into an armed confrontation akin to the civil war of the early 1990s. Or, like celebrity film director Giorgi [Shengelaia], shoot down the notion that the tapes were doctored. On the other side of the fence, opposition-minded Maestro TV focuses on the skeptics.
Ordinary Georgians, in their turn, only hope that the duel between the government and Burjanadze does not turn violent. Like many other viewers of Rustavi-2, Tbilisi banker Paata Sharikadze worries about a return to Georgia’s tumultuous past. "This is very dangerous," Sharikadze said. "We lived through this once, and I don’t want to see this happen again."
Others just express fatigue. "I don’t believe either side," said one newspaper kiosk customer with a shrug. "This is all theater, and we’re tired of it."