Russia accused of killing Georgian, but Tbilisi stays silent
The uncharacteristic restraint appears to be related to the unhappy memories the victim brought up both to the current government and the opposition.
The dramatic murder of a Georgian citizen in Germany, apparently by Russian security services, has made worldwide news. But in Georgia itself, reaction to the killing has been uncharacteristically muted, as it has revived recent historical memories inconvenient to both the government and the opposition.
On August 23, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a veteran of the Chechen wars against Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s, was shot and killed in a park in Berlin. Suspicion immediately fell on Russia, which for years has been systematically assassinating figures from those wars. Investigative reports backed up that suspicion, and U.S. officials have reportedly said they believe Russia did it.
Georgia, which has built a geopolitical identity around its victimization by Russia, doesn’t usually take these kinds of things lying down. This time, though, Tbilisi has been quiet. There have been a handful of stories about Khangoshvili’s killing in the media, but political figures both from the government and opposition have maintained a pronounced silence. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not commented on the incident and did not respond to requests for comment from Eurasianet.
The reasons for the silence, analysts say, are various.
For the government, the story recalls an assassination attempt against Khangoshvili in 2015, when he still lived in Tbilisi, which also appeared to be the work of Russian secret services but which was quietly swept under the rug. It dovetails, some observers say, with a recent pattern of quiet cooperation between Tbilisi and Moscow when it comes to militant groups from the North Caucasus and their operations in Georgia.
For the opposition – usually far more vocal when it comes to Russian aggression – the episode is an unwelcome reminder of a murky plot from their time in power to train Chechen exiles and infiltrate the militants into Russia.
Finally, some argue that the fact that Khangoshvili is not an ethnic Georgian and was presumably attacked for his role in Chechnya rather than as part of Georgia’s ongoing struggle against Russia makes him an outsider, less sympathetic to many Georgians.
Khangoshvili, 40, grew up in the Pankisi Valley, home to Georgia’s population of ethnic Chechens, known locally as Kists. During the wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, he joined the fight against Russia and rose to become a company commander.
But he returned to Georgia and in 2012 played a minor role in what became known as the “Lopota incident,” a clash between Georgian security forces and militants from the North Caucasus in the Lopota Gorge near Georgia’s border with Dagestan. The Georgian authorities initially portrayed the clash as the result of the militants entering Georgian territory from Russia. But it later emerged, thanks to a report from Georgia’s Public Defender, that the incident was far more convoluted.
The report outlined how the government, then headed by Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement party, developed a plot to recruit Chechen exiles from Europe, give them military training in Georgia, and then help them infiltrate into Russia to create havoc there. A deputy interior minister, Gia Lortkipanidze, headed the scheme, according to the report.
But the plan went awry, with the militants turning against their Georgian handlers. Khangoshvili was enlisted by Georgia’s interior ministry to negotiate with the Chechen trainees, but the mediation attempt failed and in the end three Georgian troops and at least 11 of the militants were killed.
Officials from the former ruling UNM, which is now the largest opposition force in the country, would rather that episode remain lost to history. “The opposition is not so interested to talk about the Lopota case,” said Ucha Nanuashvili, the public defender who prepared the report.
Nanuashvili’s report “was almost universally ignored by everyone,” said Dominik Cagara, the director of Tbilisi-based news website OC Media. The silence around the episode amounts to a “collective repression” and partially explains the reluctance to talk about Khangoshvili today, Cagara told Eurasianet. “Saakashvili was playing a very dangerous game and no one wants to go there.”
The operation took place during the heat of a parliamentary election campaign, and the then-opposition Georgian Dream used it as a partisan issue. When Georgian Dream won, the new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili vowed an official government investigation.
“They repeated several times that the investigation is almost ready and the results will be announced soon, but this never happened,” Nanuashvili told Eurasianet in an interview. “I have no idea why.”
That silence coincided with an apparent policy shift under Georgian Dream, with Tbilisi increasingly cooperating with Moscow when it comes to issues surrounding militants from the North Caucasus.
“The policy has changed, especially the last few years,” said Nanuashvili, who stepped down as public defender in 2017 and now heads an NGO, the Human Rights Center. “There were so many incidents when Chechens from Pankisi, Kists, had problems … we even had some reports of extraditions of Chechens or Dagestanis to the Russian Federation.”
One of the most vivid examples of this was the assassination attempt against Khangoshvili himself in 2015 in Tbilisi, when again Russian special services were suspected to be involved. The attempt took place in the center of the city, in daylight in an area where there were security cameras, and yet the police barely investigated.
“It was clear that the government and law enforcement officials were not very interested to find all evidence, they were not so active, that was my impression from the beginning,” Nanuashvili said.
Following that assassination attempt Khangoshvili fled, first to Odessa – where Lortkipanidze had become chief of police when Saakashvili was governor of the province – and later to Germany.
“The Georgian government failed to protect him,” Nanuashvili said.
Aside from the details of Khangoshvili’s own complex history, some in Georgia also have argued that the fact that Khangoshvili was not ethnically Georgian makes him less sympathetic to Georgians. Kists, who are Muslim, have long been considered separate from the rest of Georgia, and primarily a source of a threat of Islamist radicalism.
“Most Georgians identify with ethnic Georgianness and Orthodox Christianity,” Cagara said. “Kists are considered outsiders.”
That has led some to suspect that Khangoshvili’s death isn’t being highlighted because of his ethnicity.
One activist and journalist, Levan Lortkipanidze, noted in a Facebook post that at a rally in Berlin protesting Khangoshvili’s killing in Berlin, “there wasn’t a single Georgian flag, a single Georgian speaker.”
“The bloody adventure exposes not only Russia’s cynicism and cruelty,” he wrote, “but that in our society Kists are not considered equal citizens."
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.
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