Amid rancorous exchanges between Georgia and Russia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is pursuing a campaign to root out suspected spies operating in Tbilisi.
In televised comments March 28, Saakashvili announced that individuals spying against the Georgian government would receive amnesty if they gave themselves up by May 1. Without going into details, he asserted that "many" foreign agents were currently operating in Georgia.
"If they cooperate with us, I give my personal guarantee to them that they will be absolutely untouchable regardless of what they have done until now," Saakashvili said. "These people should know that we have a lot of information but we want them to cooperate with their own country based on our country's interests."
Saakashvili comments came just hours after the arrest of Simon Kiladze -- a low-level official in the presidential administration press service -- for allegedly spying for an unnamed foreign government. According to Vano Merabishvili, the minister of internal affairs, Kiladze had been engaging in espionage since 2004.
The alleged spy had been "systematically passing to special services of a foreign country information of a confidential nature on the Georgian president, the heads of the country's executive and legislature, visits by state delegations, their meetings, issues discussed at such meetings and other information of strategic importance," Merabishvili said in comments broadcast by Imedi television. The interior minister added that Kiladze had received "a minimum of $20,000" in exchange for information that he provided. In a telephone interview with EurasiaNet, Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Khizanishvili said officials Kiladze's activities had been under investigation for "months," but he declined to elaborate, saying the probe into his activities was ongoing.
Kiladze is one of many moles working inside government agencies, Saakashvili alleged. "I am afraid this is not the only person in the governmental structure who is engaged in this kind of activity," he said. "We have too much information, which we have been gathering for a long time." While the president implied the government already knows the identities of at least some secret agents, he did not go into details and did not mention one particular country.
Davit Losaberidze, a project director at the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi, suggested that Kiladze's arrest was likely connected to several foreign and domestic factors. On the foreign front, Georgia has been experiencing growing pressure from Russia, as the two states have argued over the political future of the separatist South Ossetia territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Domestically, Saakashvili has been facing growing opposition.
"This [Kiladze's arrest] is a show of strength," Losaberidze said. "It an example [to show] they [Georgian officials] are not going to back down."
The latest move in the Georgian-Russian political chess match occurred March 30, when Moscow banned the importation of wine from Georgia and Moldova. Russian official alleged that Georgian wines a major export commodity for Tbilisi did not meet Russian safety standards. Given that Russia is perhaps the most important market for Georgian wine, Tbilisi reacted furiously to Moscow's action. Georgian officials insisted the ban was politically motivated, and said they would have an independent lab in Switzerland test a wide selection of the country's wines to disprove the Russian assertions, the Civil Georgia web site reported March 31.
In a telephone interview with EurasiaNet, Gela Charkviani, a presidential spokesperson, declined to comment on whether the alleged activity of Kiladze or of other supposed spies had undermined national security, or posed a particular threat to the president's safety. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Charkviani merely reiterated that Kiladze would face treason charges, adding that no further details would be released until the completion of the investigation.
Saakashvili has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that Georgia's stability was being threatened. On March 9, Saakashvili said an "ideological war" was being waged against Georgia. "Very influential, very rich, very important forces are engaged in discrediting Georgia and in portraying Georgia as unstable, dangerous, unreliable [and] non-European," Civil Georgia quoted Saakashvili as saying. The president and other Georgian leaders later characterized the foiled mass prison escape in Tbilisi on March 27 as a part of a conspiracy to destabilize Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
There are indications that the Georgia government remains very concerned about possible destabilization. On March 31, officials announced that Saakashvili had postponed a visit to Ukraine that had been planned to begin on April 4. Officials gave no reason for the postponement, or indicated when the trip would be rescheduled, Civil Georgia reported.
Despite the fact that authorities assert they have compiled "firm" evidence of widespread espionage in Georgia, many local analysts wondered whether the alleged espionage posed a serious national security threat.
Uri Simonian, a member of the political information department at the South Caucasus Institute for Regional Security, voiced skepticism about Saakashvili's allegation that dozens of secret agents are working in Georgia. "I didn't understand when they said there are a lot of spies that operate here in the open. It is rare that a spy operates in the open," he said. Simonian suggested that Saakashvili was using
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Tbilisi.