Ever since newly independent Georgia’s first government was overthrown in a military coup in the dying days of 1991, the specter of treason and plot has been planing over Georgia’s politics and preying on leaders’ minds. With Georgia’s weak state tittering on the verge of collapse well through the 1990s, some of these threats were to be taken seriously. But the plot accusations were also a political instrument, wielded to silence or discredit the opposition.
Georgian Prosecutors said on July 4 to have both evidence and testimonies from “tens of witnesses”, that point to “a group of individuals” plotting a coup during the night of June 20-21.
The investigation, originally launched under Article 225 of the Criminal Code – which covers leading, inciting and participation in mass violence – was duly amended by Article 315 – “Conspiracy or insurrection aimed at changing the Constitutional order through violence”.
Part 3 of that article, that the prosecution has explicitly referred to, carries a prison sentence from 15 to 20 years, for death or grave bodily harm inflicted on individuals during the coup.
All very serious then, albeit for a small detail: the coup charges have been invoked at least seven times since 2007, and none have reached the court. A sign of political expediency tainting the prosecutor independence? Let us take a brief look at the previous charges, and what came of them.
Crying wolf – a Chronology
This is not the first time the ruling Georgian Dream invokes imminent “destabilization” – usually the impulse to violently overthrow the government was pinned at GD’s chief political nemesis – the United National Movement. There is no love lost between the Guelphs and Ghibellines of the Georgian political scene, and it comes as not surprise, that the charges were habitually brought in the context of bitterly contested election campaigns.
Ahead of the 2018 presidential elections, no other than the current villain of the day, Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia said that the Georgian Dream’s opponents wanted to ride into political success “through stoking tensions and raising of the political temperature.”
To add weight to his political broadside, he added that the authorities had “detailed” information on “all the plans that were being plotted for destabilization and provocations.”
“The Ministry, together with the State Security Service, has all of that exposed and detailed at all levels, including who was planning what and when it was being planned; these [plans] will not materialize and the elections will be held in absolutely peaceful and safe environment,” he noted.
Right was the minister: nothing has materialized. The alleged plotters were never named, let alone brought to justice. From all we know, the case is still pending – officials had yet to respond to Civil.ge query at the time of publication.
The issue of opposition’s attempts to incite destabilization was in the news during the 2017 local elections, too.
Giga Bokeria of European Georgia and Rustavi 2 TV’s director general, Nika Gvaramia were summoned by the State Security Service and told they were under secret surveillance as part of investigation into the “coup case” back from 2015-2016 .
Bokeria said after questioning that by fulfilling the “political order” from “their patrons – Ivanishvili’s team”, the agencies, “which should protect security of our citizens and fight against the challenges and problems faced by our country, are busy with investigating this delirium.”
Delirium or not, the electorate were reminded of opposition’s evil nature. The subsequent election victory of GD meant that the “investigation” – if there was any – has quieted down.
The State Security Service said ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections after the audio recording of conversation purportedly between Georgia’s ex-president and governor of Odessa region in Ukraine at the time, Mikheil Saakashvili, and some of the UNM leading members was leaked that it opened investigation under the Article 315 – yes, again the “conspiracy to overthrow” the government.
This statement had not been followed through in 2016, but the case apparently surfaced in 2017…
The plots were thick in 2015, when the Georgian State Security Service reported it opened investigation under…. yes, the Article 315 of the Criminal Code.
The investigation was reportedly launched after a spoof website registered in Russia, but purportedly Ukrainian, released what allegedly was a transcript of a conversation between Georgia’s ex-President Saakashvili – at the time, governor of Odessa region in Ukraine, and Giga Bokeria. The two men allegedly met in Istanbul airport on October 22, masterminding an attack against Rustavi 2 TV – perceived as supportive to UNM – journalists to create a pretext for mass protests against the GD government.
Ahead of the local elections, Georgian Dream party raised the issue of a coup in 2014. In the interview with Prime Time news agency in April 2014, then Interior Minister Alexander Chikaidze said that the United National Movement planned destabilization “to overthrow government institutions.” He said that “certain information” is available according to which UNM may try to “mobilize” persons with past links to criminal groups. The statement was coming hot on the heels of Maidan protests in Ukraine, which led to ouster of President Victor Yanukovich.
Chikaidze repeated the claim in the interview with Alia newspaper in September 2014, saying that the National Movement was planning “destabilization” in the country, presenting as one of the proofs, the allegations that they were collecting tires to burn during street rallies. He also said that the National Movement and its leader, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and its affiliated organizations planned “to create a chaos.” “We may be dealing with a plot to seizing power,” Alexander Chikaidze told Alia.
Although UNM asked the Minister to appear in the Parliament to substantiate his allegations, the issue was soon relegated to media archives.
The trail of fear
Newly independent Georgia’s first government was overthrown in a military coup in the dying days of 1991, led by the motley crew of ex-officials, criminal gangs and rebellious troops.
Eduard Shevardnadze, who took power offered by the coup leaders, has survived several military insurrections, and was himself the target of at least two widely publicized attempts at his life.
Shevardnadze’s era has ended in 2003, as the protest against rigged elections forced him to step down, yielding to the leaders of the Rose Revolution. Some in Shevardnadze’s entourage, and certainly in Russia considered this “colored revolution” as a part of a wider, US-inspired plot to oust the post-Communist leaders.
Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration has stumbled into coup territory in November 2007, which represented the turning point for the reformist administration. Threatened by Badri Patarkatsishvili, an influential tycoon, who threw his weight and media behind opposition, police cracked down on protesters.
Charges on participating in the conspiracy to overthrow the government were brought then against several politicians, including Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labor Party. Investigation on the same charges was launched against business tycoon, Badri Patarkatsishvili, who rendered financial support and his Imedi TV – television support to the 2007 protest rallies.
“What happened yesterday was not our choice. It was a single and adequate response to the conspiracy plotted against Georgia, Georgian democracy, I stress, an attempt of overthrowing the constitutional order, the steps against Georgia’s democratic system,” Saakashvili said then.
The public and international outcry at heavy-handed police crackdown, police intrusion into and subsequent closure of Imedi TV, and the martial law that was imposed has forced Saakashvili to resign and seek re-election.
The coup suggestions were subsequently backed up by series of audio recordings of Patarkatsishvili in December 2007, although their authenticity was never positively established, and the case was shelved after Patarkatsishvilis death in 2008.
In 2011, the coup allegations were posed at the door of Nino Burjanadze, erstwhile Speaker of the Parliament who has joined the opposition and held series of rallies calling for Saakashvili’s resignation.
An attempt to block the independence day celebrations on May 26, 2011 by protesters, which were assessed by her former teammates as a coup attempt and were later dispersed by riot police. Dozens of people were reported missing following the crackdown, and two were found dead close to the venue – police said by accidental electrocution as they tried to climb the nearby garage. One policemen has died, hit by the car of the opposition leaders’ escort. The government cited coup attempt as one the reasons behind dispersal of the opposition’s protest rally, and as in 2007, audio recordings were presented by the police to back up the allegations.
On May 31, 2011, the representatives of the parliamentary majority said during the parliamentary debates on the May 26 dispersal that the government prevented “an adventure” orchestrated by Russia, which aimed at overthrowing the government by means of civil war. Saakashvili also pinned the blame on the “fifth column”.
Criminal charges were brought against Badri Bitsadze, husband of Nino Burjanadze, but under the article 353 of the Criminal Code that covers resistance to police through use of violence, rather than the Article 315. He was sentenced in absentia in 2011 to five years and six months in prison.