Opposition politicians in Georgia are claiming that the recent arrests made in connection with a coup plot were designed to give the governing party a boost in upcoming local elections. Meanwhile, the coup controversy is providing new fuel for Georgia's ongoing feud with Russia.
Georgia's local elections are due to be held October 5. Just as the campaign started to heat up, Georgian authorities caused a sensation by staging raids across the country and arresting 29 activists of the Justice Party as well as affiliated parties and organizations. Thirteen activists were ultimately charged with conspiracy to overthrow the Georgian government, while the others were released from custody.
The Justice Party is affiliated with former state security minister Igor Giorgadze, who has lived in exile in Russia since 1995. Giorgadze is wanted by Georgian authorities and Interpol in connection with a 1995 assassination attempt on former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. The ex-minister last appeared in public in May 2006, speaking at a news conference in Moscow, at which he called on President Mikheil Saakashvili to hold fresh parliamentary and presidential elections and threatened a "revolution of nettles" if his demands were ignored. Giorgadze's supporters in Georgia and Giorgadze himself have denied the coup charges, and have described the government's actions as "repression."
In an interview with EurasiaNet, David Berdzenishvili, one of the leaders of the mainstream opposition Republican Party, characterized the September 6 arrests and the coup claim as a publicity stunt aimed at helping Saakashvili's National Movement secure a landslide win in the local elections.
"Giorgadze and his supporters do not have an electorate in Georgia and do not have any chance in the elections," Berdzenishvili said. "Of course, the authorities know it and use Giorgadze's supporters for their own election campaign." Berdzenishvili added that his own party had asked the government "from the very beginning" to investigate the financing for Giorgadze's party and how it managed to operate "so many branch offices."
The Republican Party itself has come under official scrutiny following the September 12 arrest of Goga Odzeli, a coordinator at the party's joint campaign headquarters with the Conservative Party. The arrest prompted an angry press conference at which Republican and Conservative leaders accused Saakashvili of using "political persecution" to retain power. Odzeli was later released after five hours of questioning about his possible involvement in the construction of a house for a reputed crime boss in a town outside of Tbilisi, Rustavi-2 television reported.
To date, only one of the 13 accused has confessed to plotting against the government. Maia Nikoleishvili -- head of the Anti-Soros Movement and an independent medical expert who was one of the chief critics of the official investigation into the 2005 death of the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania -- told investigators that plans to topple Saakashvili were discussed at a May meeting in the Justice Party's offices in Tbilisi. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. She has since been released on a 10,000-lari (about $5,000) bail. [EurasiaNet.org is run under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, of which philanthropist George Soros is the chairman].
Shortly after the September 6 arrests, however, the Interior Ministry released videotaped testimony of alleged Justice Party activists, standing with their backs to the camera, who discussed plans to use "large-scale" protests in front of the parliament and state chancellery buildings as the springboard for an armed revolt. The interviewees claimed that two people would be paid between $3,000 and $5,000 each for firing shots into the crowd. Another activist has since been arrested for allegedly planning to blow up the National Movement's headquarters. On September 6, Georgian TV channels broadcast another Interior Ministry tape which showed guns and ammunition allegedly hidden in the house of one of the detained activists.
Irina Sarishvili, head of the Igor Giorgadze Charitable Foundation, insisted that authorities fabricated the plot. "It seems that authorities did not see any real opponent except for us, which is why they turned to these barbarous methods," Sarishvili said. Nikoleishvili's statement to investigators showed that "she turned out to be a weak woman," Sarishvili added. "There was no meeting and no plans [to oust the government]."
In all, 12 suspects in the coup plot, including Temur Zhorzholiani, head of the Conservative-Monarchist Party, and Maia Topuria, a niece of Giorgadze, remain in pre-trial detention. All 12 have denied the charges against them.
In a statement for the media shortly after the arrests, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili insisted that the evidence of a coup plot was overwhelming. "We have more than enough proof to charge these people." Only part of the evidence could now be made public, he added.
Regardless of the evidence, opposition leaders are expressing concern that Saakashvili and his supporters are using the incident to enhance their power. At a September 8 news conference, Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili accused the presidential administration of attempting "to destroy Georgia's multi-party system," the online news wire Civil.ge reported.
Challenging Russian media reports portraying the arrests as a move against an "influential" opposition party, independent political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze commented that the coup controversy plays more to Georgians' suspicions of Russia than to an attempt to squash a political opponent whose popularity ratings have "never exceeded 1-2 percent."
Most Georgians likely will show little sympathy for those arrested, given Giorgadze's strong ties with Russia, he said. "Georgians like the policy of ultimatums with Russia," Sakvarelidze argued. "Russia is viewed here as the author of the Georgian [internal] conflicts [in Abkhazia and South Ossetia], [and] in this context, Giorgadze can be viewed as the [conflicts'] co-author."
In an August 31 meeting with Georgian businessmen, President Saakashvili claimed that "Russia has a vividly defined policy aimed at replacing the current government in Georgia very promptly," Civil.ge reported. A senior aide for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Prikhodko, denied the accusation, according to the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti.
"We want Georgia to be a neighborly state," RIA-Novosti quoted Prikhodko as saying. "But when instead of solving major problems, the entire propaganda machinery of a small but very proud country works for the creation of an external enemy
Diana Petriashvili is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.