Controversy surrounding the announced US deployment of military advisors to Georgia is helping to obscure unanswered questions about the apparent suicide of the country's top national security aide to President Eduard Shevardnadze. The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death raise new questions about the stability of Georgia's government.
Nugzar Sajaia, the 61-year-old secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, was found in his Tbilisi office on February 25 with a gunshot wound to his head. He died from the wound later in a city hospital. The shooting was portrayed as a suicide, purportedly caused by Sajaia's anguish over media allegations of illicit behavior, including conspiracy to assassinate rival politicians. Shevardnadze, a long-time political sponsor of Sajaia, said the national security chief was driven to suicide by "psychological terror," the independent Rustavi-2 television station reported.
Sajaia's background was firmly rooted in Georgia's Communist-era establishment. He held a variety of local government posts in Georgia's provinces, eventually rising to head the Communist Party's agitation and propaganda department in the republic. That is why many members of Georgia's political elite doubt that media defamation, or even the assassination allegation, would have driven Sajaia to take his own life.
Sajaia was one Shevardnadze's closest political allies, and his influence reportedly grew significantly following a government crisis last November. This expansion of his political influence, especially with law-enforcement and security forces, may have made him a political target. Sajaia himself tended to avoid the political spotlight.
For almost a year, Shevardnadze had been locked in a political struggle with the reform-minded elements of his own party the Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG). The reformers - led by former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania and former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili - have criticized Shevardnadze's inability to crack down on widespread corruption. They also played a prominent role during the November government crisis, which culminated in the ouster of several conservative leaders of the so-called "power" ministries.
Shevardnadze named Sajaia's protégés to fill the vacant positions. Valeri Khaburdzania became minister of state security, and Koba Narchemashvili headed the Interior Ministry. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Earlier, another favorite of Sajaia's, Sulkhan Molashvili, was appointed as a head of the anti-corruption council - politically a very sensitive position for Shevardnadze.
Interestingly, none of Sajaia's candidates faced opposition from government critics, including radical reformers. Many observers interpreted the silent acceptance of Sajaia's candidates as proof that the national security council chief enjoyed "untouchable" status within the Georgian government's shadowy hierarchy.
Allegations about Sajaia's involvement in assassination plots were raised about a week before his death. Reportedly, one plot targeted Aslan Abashidze - the leader of Ajaria, the autonomous Georgian territory along the Black Sea. Since November, Abashidze has gained a prominent national profile for his role as the main peace-broker between the Georgian government and the separatist region of Abkhazia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Sajaia and others within the Georgian state security establishment were said to resent Abashidze's involvement into national security affairs. The Ajarian leader enjoys a reputation as a master of back-room political maneuvering.
Many observers in Tbilisi believe that Sajaia's death and the announcement about the imminent arrival of US military advisors are not coincidental. Indeed, according to Georgian press reports, Sajaia appeared to be wary of some sort of threat. He kept his 11-year-old son out of school during the week prior to his death.
Conspiracy theories now abound in Tbilisi, with no clear-cut facts to support any of the claims. For example, Khaburdzania, the new Security Minister, indicated that he believed Sajaia was either murdered or driven to kill himself by other factors. Khaburdzania also intimated that Russia played a role in Sajaia's death.
"This work bears all the hallmarks of special services or organizations of that type," Khaburdzania told Georgian television. "There is a direct link between forces operating in Russia and all this. It is still to be precisely established who we are dealing with, but we already have some information."
Regardless of the causes of Sajaia's death, President Shevardnadze now finds himself without a crucial political ally at a time when Georgia is confronting an explosive domestic political situation.
Georgia's state institutions have failed to address the myriad social, economic and political challenges face by the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The dispatch of US military advisors is indicative of concern in Washington that Georgia has the potential to become a haven for Islamic terrorists. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
But the US move has the potential to set in motion a chain of events that could further destabilize Georgia.
Russia is generally opposed to the presence of US advisors in Georgia. Political leaders in Moscow warned that Shevardnadze's decision to accept US military personnel could prove ruinous for Georgia. "Georgia's neighbor is not America, but Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Georgian citizens work, and from where run trade and financial flows," Boris Nemstov, a leader of Russia's liberal Union of Rightist Forces, told the Interfax news agency.
"He [Shevardnadze] dooms not only his country, but first of all himself.