The Georgian government has released evidence connecting a South Ossetian human rights activist to a KGB agent, in an apparent attempt to discredit her during a visit to Washington to gain support for South Ossetian war victims, and to raise awareness of what she called Georgian war crimes.
Lira Tskhovrebova, the founder of the Association of South Ossetian Women for Democracy and Human Rights, was part of a small delegation from the Georgian breakaway republic that arrived in Washington on December 4. The group met with staffers from several Congressional committees, think tanks and journalists in Washington, a standard tour for foreign government officials and nongovernmental organization representatives. Her trip, however, attracted little attention until the Associated Press published an article on December 15, titled "Activist in Washington had meetings with KGB agent." According to the story, "Americans meeting with Tskhovrebova didn't know about her ties to South Ossetia's security service. . . . Georgian intelligence provided the AP with secretly recorded conversations in which Tskhovrebova appears to discuss assignments, money and information" with a KGB agent.
The AP also produced a video story in which the AP reporter surprises Tskhovrebova on camera with a tape recording of her conversations with a man Georgia identified as a state security agent in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, Vasil Guliev. Her public relations representative, Mark Saylor, stepped in and stopped the interview, accusing the AP of practicing "gotcha" journalism.
As a result of the AP's inquiries, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza canceled a meeting that State Department staff members had scheduled with Tskhovrebova, saying that he doubted her independence, according to the AP story.
At a press conference on December 16 at the National Press Club in Washington, Tskhovrebova denied that she was a spy and said that the Georgian government was trying to smear her to hide its culpability in the August war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. "President [Mikheil] Saakashvili can not challenge the truthful and well documented statements I've made about his decision to kill hundreds of civilians on August 7, so Georgia smears me personally," she said. "Whenever anyone speaks out, Saakashvili responds by calling them spies. It is a charge easily made and impossible to disprove."
The AP was approached by the public relations company organizing Tskhovrebova's trip, and the news agency "subsequently conducted reporting into her background on two continents," AP spokesman Jack Stokes told EurasiaNet. As a result of the AP's inquiries, Georgian intelligence gave the AP the transcripts, as well as original audio recordings, of Tskhovrebova allegedly talking to Guliev. The AP also did an independent translation of the recordings, Stokes said. Tskhovrebova has not disputed that the recordings and transcripts were accurate, nor that Guliev is affiliated with a state security agency.
The Georgian Embassy in Washington provided EurasiaNet with a copy of the transcripts. All of the conversations were from 2005 between Tskhovrebova and Guliev. They discuss, among other things, various meetings Tskhovrebova has had with international organizations, such as representatives from the OSCE, European Union and the International Crisis Group. There are occasional tantalizing but vague references to "money" and "documents."
"I don't have any money left. Yesterday I learned super -- not super -- but very important information completely by chance," she said in one conversation, according to the AP's translation.
Eric McGlinchey, a political science professor at George Mason University and a specialist on the former Soviet Union, reviewed the transcripts for EurasiaNet. "I didn't see any smoking guns," he said. For a human rights activist to talk to a state security agent is not in itself suspicious, he said. "It's not unusual, in fact it's often that they [NGO members] have interactions with security services." What was unusual about her interactions, however, was the level of familiarity between Tskhovrebova and Guliev. They often joke, and she appears to initiate most of the calls. "I was a little struck by the tone," McGlinchey said.
At the press conference, Tskhovrebova called Guliev a "boy" whom she had as a student when she was a teacher. "He never demanded any kind of information from me," she said. She also mocked the lack of a smoking gun in the recorded conversations. "With all the active life I'm leading, with all of the interesting meetings with international organizations, all my meetings in other countries, we would have much more interesting stuff to talk about than the nonsense that is indicated there," she said.
She said her trip was sponsored by a group of wealthy Ossetians that included businessman Taimuraz Bolloyev, conductor Valery Gergiev and judo champion Tamerlan Tmenov. Bryza had said he was suspicious of Tskhovrebova because she had retained Saylor's PR agency. "It is unique in my years of experience in the Caucasus (region) that someone like this has representation by an expensive public relations firm. That sets off alarm bells," Bryza told the news agency.
Tskhovrebova said the only fallout from the spy allegations was the cancellation of her meeting with the State Department. Other than that, she said, she was pleasantly surprised by how positively she was received in Washington. And even the State Department appeared to change its stance towards her: Just before the press conference, the department announced that officials there would meet with Tskhovrebova after all, but did not say when or with whom the new meeting would take place. The State Department said it originally objected only to meeting Tskhovrebova alone rather than as part of the delegation, but at the press conference Tskhovrebova said the plan had always been for the entire delegation to meet.
For the remainder of her trip, Tskhovrebova was scheduled to participate in a three-day conflict-resolution workshop between Georgians and South Ossetians at George Mason. Susan Allen Nan, a professor at George Mason who organized the workshop, said the Georgian allegations would not impact Tskhovrebova's participation. "We're continuing on with the dialogue, and we're really pleased with the group of people that we've got," she said.
In Tbilisi, a group of Georgian NGOs held a press conference on December 16 in which they defended Tskhovrebova against the spy allegations. The group included Nana Kakabadze, head of Former Prisoners for Human Rights, and they called the allegations "an alarmist media campaign" and jokingly referred to themselves as all being spies.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.