With most voters still undecided on the eve of Georgia's parliamentary elections, a mysterious audio recording has surfaced that is apparently intended to smear former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his party. The country's State Security Service is investigating whether its contents constitute a coup attempt.
The audio recording, uploaded on September 26 by an anonymous YouTube user, features the purported voices of Saakashvili and five parliamentarians from his United National Movement (ENM) discussing their options in the event of the party's defeat in the October 8 vote. The six can be heard considering the possibility of forming an opposition coalition government -- an idea dismissed by the voice attributed to Saakashvili -- or launching a long-term public protest in an effort to have the results of the elections overturned.
"Our task is to hold elections in a revolutionary atmosphere," says a voice alleged to be that of ENM parliamentarian Gigi Tsereteli. "This means stirring up the public."
Saakashvili has reportedly dismissed the recording as a fabrication, implying on his Facebook page that former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GD-DG) party came to power after defeating the ENM in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot, resorted to doctoring the audio in a last-ditch attempt to avoid "inevitable defeat" in the upcoming elections.
Parliamentarian Petre Tsiskarishvili, another ENM member whose voice can purportedly be heard in the audio, said that the alleged discussion was pieced together using altered recordings obtained from illegal surveillance carried out by the State Security Service, according to Civil.ge.
The ENM issued a statement denying any plans to destabilize the situation or plan a revolution. Parliamentarian Akaki Bobokhidze, also named as one of the five purported ENM members on the tape, denied ever having held a telephone conversation with Saakashvili this year, or that the five had met personally with Saakashvili.
The nearly 2 1/2 minute recording was posted on a YouTube channel maintained by "GeorgiaReality," whose profile only says "stay informed :)" and offers a number of videos critical of the ENM.
Even though the authenticity of the audio is questionable, Georgia's State Security Service has opened an investigation under Article 315/1 of the Criminal Code into a possible "conspiracy to overthrow the government," Civil.ge reported on September 27.
The service added that in the course of its investigation the origin and authenticity of the recording would be examined, and people featured in it would be questioned.
At the same time, it has formally asked "all relevant states" for help in the investigation. That request is presumably directed in the first instance at Ukraine. Saakashvili is currently governor of Odesa and holds Ukrainian citizenship. Since Georgia does not allow dual citizenship, he was stripped of his Georgian citizenship in December 2015.
The State Security Service summoned two of the putative interlocutors, Akaki Minashvili and Nugzar Tsiklauri, for questioning on September 27 -- and Tsiskarishvili and Tsereteli on September 28 together with another ENM member alleged to be part of the alleged discussion, Irma Nadirashvili, who immediately issued a statement pointing out that her voice is not heard on the tape.
The State Security Service said on September 29 that none of the five has complied with that summons, according to the Russian-language Interpressnews. Rustavi-2 television, owned by associates of Saakashvili, reported that Minashvili and Tsiklauri would agree to questioning only if investigators visited them.
On September 26, just hours before the audio was uploaded, Saakashvili had assured ENM supporters via Facebook live streaming video that the party's victory in the October 8 elections was "inevitable." Opinion polls suggest that many voters are disenchanted with GD-DG, but at the same time do not want the ENM to return to power, and that neither GD-DG nor the ENM is capable of winning a majority in the new parliament. If true, that could explain why some ENM members, including party Executive Secretary Giga Bokeria, might favor a coalition -- as claimed in the released audio recording by the voice attributed to Saakashvili, which rejects the idea as "not what I am fighting for."
'A Very Good Cell'
Saakashvili's successor as Georgian president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, responded on September 27 to the audio footage with an address in which he called on Saakashvili to stop interfering in the election campaign.
Russian media quoted Saakashvili's wife, Sandra Roelofs, as saying during a campaign rally in Zugdidi district that he would travel to Georgia to celebrate victory following the elections. The reports prompted Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili to warn publicly that Saakashvili would be arrested if he sets foot on Georgian territory, while former Prime Minister Ivanishvili suggested that "a very good cell" awaited the former president, according to Interfax.
U.S. Ambassador to Tbilisi Ian Kelly was quoted by Interpressnews.ge as commenting that "the only way to come to power is through the ballot box, any other method is illegitimate." It is not clear whether he was referring specifically to the released audio recording, or to the ongoing acrimonious exchange between the ENM and GD-DG of accusations of intent to destabilize the situation and/or falsify the outcome of the vote.
This is not the first time that audio footage has surfaced of a conversation between speakers whose voices resemble those of Saakashvili and senior ENM members. Eleven months ago, in late October 2015, footage was made public in which speakers purported to be those of Saakashvili, Bokeria, and Nika Gvaramia, head of the pro-Saakashvili Rustavi-2, discuss the need to "smash faces" in a "physical confrontation" with representatives of the authorities in the ongoing court battle over ownership of the embattled broadcaster.
The results of the State Security Service's probe into whether the recording was evidence of a coup plot have not been reported.