Georgia Investigates Coup Claim as Political Tensions Rise
Georgian officials on October 26 launched an investigation into an obscure website’s claims of a supposed coup attempt by former President Mikhail Saakashvili and former National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria. The investigation comes amidst stepped-up surveillance of a leading opposition TV channel sympathetic to the former president.
Georgia’s political fights generally escalate overnight, with plot accusations, allegedly leaked conversations and gruesome, incriminating videos everywhere. The country is now having one of those moments — the government speaks of a coup conspiracy and the opposition of a deliberate campaign to be pushed out of the political arena ahead of a national election. Some see the developments an early start of Georgian-style campaigning for next year’s parliamentary vote.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and his ruling Georgian Dream coalition were quick to dismiss as alarmist President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s warnings last week about a possible civilian conflict. But the subsequent initiation of an investigation into “a government-overthrow” hardly helped support claims that’s all is calm in the South Caucasus nation. Particularly during a regional security conference, attended by NATO's representative to the region, James Apathurai, as well as other senior dignitatries.
The scrutiny was triggered by the transcript of a supposed conversation between Saakashvili, now a governor in Ukraine, and Bokeria, a key political ally in Saakashvili’s United National Movement. The transcript, published in Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian on a site called Ukrainian Wikileaks, alleges that Saakashvili and Bokeria brainstormed ideas about their coup project during an alleged October-22 layover in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. No audio recordings were provided.
The site claims that Saakashvili detailed a plan to use fake riot police to stage a violent attack on the Saakashvili-friendly TV station Rustavi2 to trigger a mass protest.
The alleged conversation also presents the current president of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili as in the loop about these supposed plans.
The source, claims and timing of the document are highly questionable, but the government-run National Security Council deemed the transcript sufficient grounds to bring in Bokeria for questioning and send police patrols to monitor the Rustavi2 premises.
Parliament Speaker Davit Usupashvili, however, expressed hope that there were better grounds for launching the probe than just a post on a Ukrainian website. Otherwise, it will be quite “damaging” for the country, he said, Interpressnews reported.
Among its earlier supposed leaks, the Ukrainian Wikileaks website posted claims of another, much wider Saakashvili conspiracy — an alleged joint plan with Arizona Senator John McCain, a longtime Saakashvili supporter, to provoke a Russian-US armed conflict in Syria.
Bokeria dismissed the govenrnment's investigation into the site's coup-claims as nonsensical. “All of this is going to harm Georgia in the light of the massive challenges our country faces,” he said, after questioning by the National Security Council.
The Ukrainian Wikileaks transcript follows the release of a video, also on a purportedly Ukrainian website, that depicted the alleged sexual abuse of a prisoner by police under Saakashvili.
Saakashvili’s United National Movement describes these releases and subsequent attacks on the party’s offices as a Georgian-Dream-orchestrated campaign to discredit the largest opposition party ahead of Georgia’s 2016 parliamentary vote.
Rustavi2 has presented the coup investigation as the authorities’ way of priming the pump for a handover of the channel to government loyalists. The channel is caught in an ownership dispute with a former shareholder, Kibar Khalvashi, whose sister, Pati Khalvashi, is a member of the Georgian Dream. A ruling is expected shortly.
The station, which, in the past, played a key role in the country’s power struggles, claims the government plans the channel’s takeover by securing the desired court decision. It has staged a series of nationwide concerts to rally supporters, and claims that it will resist any change of ownership, even if it comes to physical confrontation with the authorities.
In an October 26 statement, the European Union’s delegation to Tbilisi stated that it had “concerns to be addressed” related to unnamed court cases, noting that “The limitation or the disruption of an important media outlet would have the potential to weaken the democratic process, including the conduct of the elections scheduled for October 2016.”
Newly arrived US Ambassador Ian C. Kelly similarly stressed diversity of media and political views as “an absolutely important element for the development of a democracy.”
Although the channel is at the epicenter of the tensions, the confrontation extends to a larger and endless battle between Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odesa region, and billionaire former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the Georgian Dream.
In a TV interview, Ivanishvili weighed in Friday night to dismiss accusations of attempts to silence critical news broadcasts and called for his critics to lay off the “hysteria.” He said if public support for his views and his established Georgian Dream wanes by the 2016 parliament vote, he will just continue his gardening.