Georgia's political crisis moved into high gear on October 30 after ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was caught advising the embattled Georgian television station, Rustavi2, to barricade itself against the government’s alleged seizure plans and adopt a “revolutionary scenario.” Based on the wiretapped conversation, posted online, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili accused Saakashvili of fomenting an upheaval and vowed to “neutralize everything and everyone” threatening the country’s constitutional order.
The State Security Service early this afternoon began questioning Saakashvili’s two interlocutors, Rustavi2 General Director Nika Gvaramia and former National Security Council head Giga Bokeria, a senior member of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM). Neither of the two men is being held. The Service already is investigating another supposed conversation between Saakashvili and Bokeria.
Driving the drama is the shortly expected verdict in a lawsuit for ownership of the Saakashvili-sympathetic television station Rustavi2, the country’s most frequently viewed national broadcaster. Station staff and supporters claim the suit fronts as a takeover attempt by the government, and that they will not recognize a court-decision that changes Rustavi2’s ownership.
With tensions escalating, the hearing on Friday was postponed until November 2.
Georgian television is now awash with the taped conversations, the authenticity of which both Gvaramia and Bokeria have confirmed. Dates mentioned in the conversation indicate it occurred some 10 days ago.
“You need to go to the revolutionary scenario, call people to defend you, put up defenses, set up barricades…stock up supplies of water and what not, and it has to be a many weeks-long standoff,” Saakashvili told Rustavi2’s Gvaramia, who served as a justice minister, education minister and deputy general prosecutor in the former president’s administration.
Saakashvili proposed mobilizing supporters to form a human shield around the channel’s premises and to bring in some sluggers (“boeviki”) since, he predicted, firearms may be used when police storm the channel. With Gvaramia sounding exhausted and not too enthusiastic about the plan, Saakashvili apparently dialed his key ally in the UNM, Bokeria, to push the strategy.
The former Georgian president, who now acts as governor of the Ukrainian region of Odessa, has not denied that the discussion occurred, but sees it as a sign of the Georgian government doing the Kremlin's bidding.
“They tap conversations, then process them together with the Russian special services and put them up on Russian websites,” Saakashvili wrote on Facebook. Not just a television channel, but Georgia’s independence is on the line, he claimed.
The Georgian justice ministry, citing the constitutional ban on dual citizenship, announced that it has begun proceedings to end Saakashvili's Georgian citizenship.
While the ruling Georgian Dream has played up the recording of the ex-president as evidence of a coup attempt, Gvaramia and the opposition UNM have played the recording down.
The lack of barricades on the Rustavi2 premises testifies to the fact that he did not take Saakashvili’s advice, Gvaramia, flanked by Rustavi2 journalists, stated during another broadcast.
Gvaramia, who earlier alleged that the government had threatened him, accused the authorities of illegal wiretapping and using such records to blackmail him.
Bokeria said that his party never made a secret of its intention to fight to the end for Rustavi2 and similarly repeated assertions that the authorities are behind the legal battle over the company’s ownership.
Plans for a rally “to defend” the station have been canceled -- an apparent reflection of a fear of additional trouble.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who tries to stay above partisan battles, called for calm. “The epoch of revolutions has ended in Georgia and those who plan going down that road are completely out of touch with [Georgian] society and political reality,” he said in televised comments.
The use of scandalous recordings, however, is very much part of Georgia's political reality.
During the UNM's nine-year time in power, compromising secret footage was regularly broadcast on television, including on Rustavi2, to back up government claims of conspiracies by opposition groups or to highlight divisions among them, including the now ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
In 2012, the Georgian Dream appeared to have beat the UNM at its own game with televised revelations of alleged torture in Georgian prisons — videos that facilitated its win in that year’s parliamentary elections. The UNM has claimed the videos were staged.
Last week, another such recording surfaced, on yet another Ukrainian website, on the same day as an opinion poll that showed the UNM leading the Georgian Dream in the runup to next year's parliamentary elections. Its public screening in Georgia prompted attacks on various regional UNM offices.
The government continues to assert that it has no connection with the recordings, all of which have appeared on nominally Ukrainian websites.
Yet with neither side ready to back off in the fight over Rustavi2, the drama season is probably far from over.