TBILISI -- Last month, Georgian society was rocked when thousands of alleged security-service files were released, seeming to document massive and long-running state surveillance of journalists, clergymen, diplomats, and others.
"We live in a terrible country," public ombudswoman Nino Lomjaria said on Palitranews television on September 19. "I could not imagine this kind of monitoring, the extent of which I cannot even imagine."
"We are not talking about 20 or 30 people," she added. "We are talking about hundreds of people and the people associated with them."
Although the authenticity of the September 13 leaks has not been officially confirmed, many of the targets -- including journalists Nodar Meladze, Nino Vardzelashvili, and Levan Sutidze -- have said the accounts of their conversations were accurate.
The next day, the prosecutor's office announced an investigation into possible illegal eavesdropping and wiretapping, while State Security Service (SSG) head Grigol Liluashvili rejected calls for his resignation.
In comments on September 27, Liluashvili said the prosecutors' probe would uncover "what kind of provocation was being planned."
The contretemps comes as the country approaches October 2 local legislative and mayoral elections that have become something of a referendum on the ruling Georgian Dream party.
In April, the party that has dominated the country's politics since it won the 2012 parliamentary elections said it would call early elections in 2022 if it failed to win at least 43 percent of the vote in the local balloting. A few months later, however, Georgian Dream cancelled that pledge.
Adding to the tension a day ahead of the vote, exiled former President Mikheil Saakashvili, a staunch opponent of Georgian Dream, said on October 1 that he had returned to the country despite the government's warning that he would be arrested on an abuse of power conviction that he contends was politically motivated.
Without commenting on the specifics of the leaked files, Georgian Dream has denounced the scandal as a political provocation aimed at destabilizing society during the election season.
"What does it mean to listen?" said Georgian Dream lawmaker Lado Kakhadze, who was an obstetrician before entering parliament. "I have listened to the heartbeats of babies in their mothers' wombs, and I didn't ask permission. If the baby is sick, I need to help."
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili also downplayed the surveillance revelations that so profoundly shook Lomjaria.
"As for the surveillance, it happens in every country, and our country is no exception," Gharibashvili said on September 27. "Yes, we conducted surveillance, but in accordance with the law and within the limits of the law."
Gharibashvili has suggested that former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, head of the rival For Georgia party, may have been responsible for the leak.
Opposition politician Khatuna Gogorishvili, of European Georgia, accused Georgian Dream of orchestrating the leak as part of an effort to intimidate the Georgian Orthodox Church leadership into supporting the party's campaign.
The Georgian Orthodox patriarch and other high-ranking church officials were among the primary targets of the purported surveillance, and the files contain references to drug use, sexual licentiousness, and associating with known criminals by priests and monks.
The church's response has been to denounce the revelations as an assault "by certain forces," adding in a statement that even those files that contain information that could be true may have been "fabricated."
"Television stations with a negative attitude against the church are disseminating covert, unsanctioned wiretappings and contributing to sowing baseless suspicions and distrust in the population," the church's statement said.
The church has urged the public to ignore the leaks.
"This poison has an antidote, and this antidote is silence," Archbishop Nikoloz said. "Absolute silence regarding these files. Silence will be the cure, I promise you."
Relatively few Georgians have shared ombudswoman Lomjaria's outrage about the surveillance revelations. Even among the files themselves, there are numerous notations that the people being wiretapped remarked that their conversations were likely being monitored.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), however, called the monitoring of journalists “illegal and unacceptable” in a statement on September 24.
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"We call on the Georgian authorities to stop this unprecedented surveillance at once and to ensure that the investigation opened by the prosecutor’s office on September 14 is completely transparent and independent," Jeanne Cavelier, head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said.
Likewise, the European Union was outraged that its diplomats appeared to be among the surveillance targets.
EU Ambassador to Georgia Carl Hartzell said on September 22 that the "volume and nature" of the surveillance seemed to go beyond the scope of normal state security, adding that such means "should be used carefully, be monitored, and kept under control with appropriate oversight."