Police arresting Giorgadze supporters in Tbilisi on September 6 (InterPressNews)
PRAGUE, September 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On September 6, Georgian police detained 29 supporters and allies of fugitive former National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, and have already charged 14 of them with treason and with plotting to overthrow the Georgian leadership and bring Giorgadze to power.
Senior Georgian officials claim to have watertight evidence to substantiate those charges and have hinted that Russia may have financed the planned coup bid.
Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili defended the arrests that same night at a news briefing in Tbilisi. "We had information and suspicion that these people, these groups planned to overthrow the government in Georgia and bring Giorgadze to Georgia," he said. "The [Interior Ministry's] Department of Constitutional Security has been working on these groups for several months in order to obtain evidence of their guilt. We have enough evidence today to bring these people to justice."
Thorn In Government's Side
But Giorgadze, whose whereabouts have remained unclear since he left Georgia in September 1995 after being accused of masterminding a failed car-bomb attack on then Georgian parliament Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, condemned the arrests as an act of political repression intended to boost the Georgian authorities' dwindling popularity.
Giorgadze, who is 56 and made his career in the Soviet-era KGB, has been a thorn in the side of the Georgian authorities for the past decade, giving numerous interviews to the Russian media in which he condemned first the Shevardnadze regime and then that of current Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. One year ago, Interfax quoted Giorgadze as affirming that "saakascism," meaning Saakashvili's brand of fascism, "has turned into an open form of suppressing dissent in Georgia."
He has claimed to enjoy widespread support, especially in western Georgia, but his efforts to register as a candidate in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, and the parliamentary ballots of 2003 and 2005, failed as he could not prove he was permanently resident in Georgia for the requisite period prior to the vote.
A recent Russian opinion poll found, however, that the Russian public at least considers him a serious political figure: almost 40 percent of those questioned said they believe he will succeed Saakashvili as Georgian president.
Saakashvili, at least publicly, appears unimpressed. Speaking on September 6 at an economic forum in Poland, the Georgian president said the arrests laid to rest any fear of government upheaval. Those arrested, he said, "will get what they deserve and what any such person deserves by the force of the law. And that is good. And those who supported and financed them and those who pinned their hopes on them will see it. If [their supporters] placed their hopes on them, it is all good [now that they are arrested] and there is no threat to our future."
The Russian authorities' inability, or reluctance, to either apprehend Giorgadze or at least prevent him using the Russian media have led successive Georgian governments to suspect that he receives covert support from fellow former KGB veterans in Moscow.
The Georgian political activists arrested on suspicion of colluding with Giorgadze include Maia Nikolaishvili, who heads the so-called Anti-Soros movement; Maia Topuria, who heads the youth organization of the Samartlianoba (Justice) party that Giorgadze founded in early 2004; and Temur Zhorzholiani, chairman of the Conservative-Monarchist Party, who is said to have attended a meeting with Samartlianoba activists in May 2006 at which the alleged coup plans were discussed. Other members of Zhorzholiani's party have denied that allegation.
Initial reports on September 6 that veteran opposition activist Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, who began her political career in the late 1980s and currently heads a charitable foundation that bears Giorgadze's name, was also arrested proved false. Sarishvili-Chanturia told journalists later on September 6 that allegations of a coup in the making were unfounded.
A second veteran oppositionist, National Independence Party of Georgia head Irakli Batiashvili, was arrested in late July and remanded in pretrial custody on charges, which he claims are unsubstantiated, of encouraging renegade warlord Emzar Kvitsiani in his apparent defiance of the Georgian authorities in the Kodori Gorge.
Until such time as the evidence against the 14 people charged with treason is made public, possible alternative explanations for those arrests cannot be completely discounted.
One such possibility is that Tbilisi is seeking to use the arrests as a bargaining chip to coerce Moscow into agreeing to withdraw the Russian peacekeepers currently deployed in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict zones.
A second is the Georgian authorities may have sought to preempt an anticipated coup bid by Giorgadze, and are counting on Western governments not questioning the evidence against the 14 suspects.
There is at least a superficial similarity between the September 6 arrests in Georgia and the arrests in Baku last October of several prominent former government officials who were likewise accused of conspiring with an exiled former senior political figure to seize power.
In the Azerbaijani case, former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev and former Health Minister Ali Insanov, among others, are suspected of colluding with exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev to seize power. Those suspects remain in pretrial detention, in failing health.