When a secret-recordings scandal hits Georgia, it can only mean one thing – an election. Georgia’s top national TV broadcaster, Rustavi2, dropped a bomb on Friday by airing leaked conversations involving big wigs from politics and business. With municipal elections around the corner next month, this could be just a teaser.
But those Georgian viewers used to more salacious or shocking revelations from past campaign seasons were disappointed this time. Nobody asked for two corpses, or used less-than-flattering epithets to describe their bosses, or revealed a Manchurian-Candidate-style collusion with Russia, the favorite plot line of secret recordings broadcast during ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili's rule.
This time around, the larger sensation is the perception that, despite a change in government, phone-tapping continues, including on top officials and perhaps just about everyone of interest.
Rights groups long have been struggling to end that alleged practice. When allegations surfaced late last year about a government-stash of black boxes, the interior ministry claimed it only listened into phone conversations during criminal investigations.
(Some critics might snipe that perhaps Gharibashvili knows whereof he speaks. After all, the ruling Georgian Dream’s advent was preceded by the broadcast of secret video recordings of prison-violence.)
Earlier last week, the Saakashvili-friendly company claimed that the office of their general manager, Nika Gvaramia, had been bugged. The irony was not lost on many Georgians. Gvaramia, a Saakashvili-era first deputy prosecutor, justice minister and education minister, is seen as among those who encouraged the tradition of using secret-police recordings against opponents.
After the prosecutor's office implied that the listening devices may have been installed under Saakashvili's own presidency, Rustavi2 released the latest clippings, which featured cordial chats, among others, between Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili and former, Saakashvili-era National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria.
Citing ethical considerations, the broadcaster claims the clips are only the “least harmful” snippets of a larger supply of conversations allegedly supplied by an unnamed source in the interior ministry.
For now, both government and UNM are simply busy swapping accusations of spying on one another. A group of NGOs has made a case for tightening government surveillance laws*, but the prime minister has taken aim at them, too. It may well take another election before this ongoing tug-of-war nears any resolution.
Editor's Note: The Open Society Georgia Foundation is among the members of This Affects You, Too, a group which has called for tighter restrictions on government surveillance. EurasiaNet.org is run under the separate auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City's Eurasia project.