Georgia's mounting political drama has intensified once again with the broadcast of potentially incriminating photographs of the husband of former parliament speaker and opposition leader Nino Burjanadze.
Aired on Georgian television on March 27, the photographs show Burjanadze's husband, former border-guard commander Badri Bitsadze, meeting in Kyiv with oligarch Shalva Breus, a native Georgian with Russian citizenship who once served as a Russian deputy property minister. Bitsadze later acknowledged that the meeting had taken place.
The revelations have fed speculation that Moscow is playing an active role in Georgian politics ahead of a major opposition protest scheduled for April 9.
They come at the end of a week of charges leveled against opposition activists -- including members of Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-United Georgia (DMES) -- of involvement in illegal arms purchases and a plot of political violence.
Police have arrested 10 men and released several videos purportedly showing the suspects purchasing arms and discussing potential violence at antigovernment actions. Two of the men have been charged with antistate activities; the remainder face lesser arms-purchase charges.
Bitsadze attempted to defuse the situation after the pictures came to light, telling reporters in Tbilisi that his meeting with Breus was innocent and private.
"I am certainly not going to forbid myself from meeting with my friends," Bitsadze said. "I certainly know Shalva Breus, although we don't have such a close relationship that it would prompt us to set up special meetings in various cities. I was in Vienna and also in Kyiv on private business, and wherever I go, I have friends and I see them."
Although the subject of the meeting remains unknown, the photographs are further circumstantial evidence connecting the DMES with Kremlin-connected Georgian émigrés based in Europe and Russia. And it has heightened concerns in Georgia that Russia has stepped up its activity in an attempt to destabilize its southern neighbor.
Breus, 51, is a former Russian deputy property minister who currently serves on the boards of several large Russian firms. According to reports in the Ukrainian and Georgian media, he is a longtime friend of Aslan Abashidze, a multimillionaire and the former head of the autonomous Georgian republic of Adjara.
Abashidze was ousted by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004 and has since lived in Moscow. Both Breus and Abashidze are from the Adjaran capital, Batumi.
Batumi was a focus of attention earlier this week when police raided the local DMES office there and arrested the head of the party's Adjara branch, Zurab Avaliani, on charges of illegally purchasing and storing weapons. Burjanadze has said the evidence against Avaliani was fabricated.
Avaliani's brother, Mikhail Avaliani, sits on the city council in Arkhangelsk and is a member of Russia's ruling Unified Russia party. A DMES spokesperson told RFE/RL that the party had not been aware of this fact.
In one of the blurry videos released earlier this week as evidence of the antistate charges, an opposition member identified as Malkhaz Gvelukashvili is heard to say that the purported plot was being financially supported by Russian-based Georgians.
"You know the meeting that took place in Austria," the speaker says. "Those who were in Austria are practically our people too. I mean the Georgians who came from Russia. Do you understand? They have enough money to put the country back on its feet."
Talks Among The Diaspora
Gvelukashvili is apparently referring to a conference of Georgian diaspora leaders that took place in Vienna on March 12-13.
The meeting between Bitsadze and Breus took place in a Kyiv restaurant on the evening of March 13. Bitsadze stated that he had also been in Vienna "on personal business," and the Ukrainian website DailyUA reported on March 26 that Breus was also in Vienna and met on the sidelines of the conference with unidentified participants.
The Vienna conference was entitled "Perspectives for Georgia's Future" and brought together about 100 Georgians living abroad, as well as representatives of Austria's Freedom Party and observers from Russia. It was organized by former Georgian lawmaker Levan Pirveli, who heads the so-called coordinating council of the Georgian opposition in Europe.
Also in attendance at the Vienna meeting were prominent Georgian publisher Malkhaz Gulashvili, Industrialists party leader Zurab Tkemaladze, Liberty party head Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, and Vladimir Khomeriki, head of the Moscow-based Russian-Georgian Unity Foundation.
Pirveli told RFE/RL the purpose of the conference was to exchange opinions and that no formal resolutions were adopted.
"There were representatives of various parties and various public organizations there and each had their own opinions, so it was a chance to discuss the regime freely, which is practically impossible now in Georgia because of the regime, the dictatorship of Saakashvili," Pirveli said. "So we held this in a more free territory in the city of Vienna and we exchanged our views on how Georgia should be, how it should develop, and what its strategic direction should be."
Pirveli added that he considers the criminal investigation into members of Burjanadze's party a provocation on the part of the authorities intended to discredit "the real, authentic opposition." He denied having any contacts with Gvelukashvili, the activist who mentioned the Vienna meeting on the video released by Georgian police.
"I have not had any contact with that man, whom I saw for the first time on television. And moreover, I have not had any contact with Burjanadze, her party, or her husband," Pirveli said.
Other observers, though, worry that Moscow is the more likely source of political provocation in Georgia. Senior officials in Moscow, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have not concealed their desire to see Saakashvili and his ardently pro-Western government ousted from power.
Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, a former deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, says Moscow would rather see Georgia destabilized than leaning toward the West. He told RFE/RL that Moscow exercises its influence through the Georgian diaspora in Russia.
"In Russia, business and the mafia are one and the same -- business, mafia, and the KGB," Rcheulishvili said. "Large Russian businesses are run by the mafia and the KGB. An order goes out telling Georgian businessmen who live in Moscow to finance various political parties here [in Georgia]."
According to a 2007 ranking of the richest Georgians, 19 of the top 50 are living in Russia. Former Adjara leader Abashidze was ranked No. 12, while Vienna-conference organizer Pirveli ranked 66th. Ukrainian media reports said that fellow Russia-based Georgian oligarchs Aleksandr Ebralidze and Valery Meladze also participated in the Vienna talks.
Tbilisi-based political scientist Ghia Nodia agrees that Russia is working to increase political and social tensions in Georgia. He told RFE/RL that he sees a pattern connecting such events as the January 2006 explosion of a gas pipeline between Russia and Georgia, Russia's subsequent embargo of Georgian goods, and last summer's war over South Ossetia as a concerted effort to unseat the Georgian government under Saakashvili.
"All this is evidence that a certain plan existed to provoke through all this an economic downturn in Georgia, an economic crisis that the public would blame on the government and which would make people stand up against the authorities and demand change," Nodia said.
In addition, Nodia adds, Russia is attempting to satisfy this demand for a change of government by supplying political alternatives.
"Russia has been trying to create some kind of a fifth column in Georgia, be it by strengthening [Igor] Giorgadze's Justice party or through the creation of some NGOs," Nodia said. "They probably thought that since Saakashvili was 'brought in by the West,' they could similarly change the government in Georgia."
So far, he says, such efforts, including the backing of former Security Minister Igor Giorgadze's Justice party in 2005-06, have been unsuccessful.
"Russia hasn't given up the plan. It still hopes that by continuing to push this agenda they will bring about political instability," Nodia said.
Meeting in Tbilisi on March 27, 13 opposition parties confirmed plans to coordinate a major antigovernment demonstration for April 9, the 20th anniversary of a brutal crackdown by Soviet troops against independence demonstrators in Tbilisi. The parties, including Burjanadze's DMES and former Georgian UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania's Alliance for Georgia, stated the protest will be "peaceful" and aimed at forcing Saakashvili to resign.
RFE/RL's Georgian Service and correspondent Brian Whitmore contributed to this report.