Analysis

Explainer | Reports of Massive Surveillance, Infiltration of Opposition Parties

On 17 September, “TV Pirveli”, a channel sharply critical of the government, published the leaked materials that seemingly document massive surveillance of the opposition parties by the State Security Service of Georgia (SSG), at the behest and for the benefit of the ruling “Georgian Dream.” The journalists say the video surveillance files, audio messages of conversations between undercover agents and their bosses, electronic messages and other materials mostly cover the period of 2020-2021, with some files extending to 2022.

Who was under surveillance?

The files, recordings, photos and videos shown in the media report document surveillance of most opposition parties. More specifically:

  • The United National Movement: Khatia Dekanoidze, was reportedly under close personal surveillance, not only while on political functions (party meetings, field encounters with supporters) but also in her personal life (conversations with her mother, visits to doctors). The surveillance was both undercover tailing, and electronic. Dekanoidze served at the National Security Council during President Saakashvili’s administration, then as the Minister of Science and Education and, following the defeat of the UNM by the “Georgian Dream” in 2012 – served as the national police chief in Ukraine in 2015-2016.
  • “Lelo for Georgia”: political party created by businessman Mamuka Khazaradze in September 2019, apparently was closely surveilled, especially through infiltration among the activists and volunteers which were hired during the launch. The infiltrated agents, mostly students operating on orders of their SSG handlers, recorded videos of Khazaradze in private settings with his party colleagues, such as restaurants, as well as during the meetings with supporters and activists held to establish the new party branches in provinces. Infiltrators also targeted the closed social media groups created by the party, to report on internal discussions.
  • “For Georgia” : according to the report, following the defection of the ex-prime minister Giorgi Gakharia, the operatives scrambled to infiltrate the closed social media group of his supporters and worked overtime to identify the potential members of the nascent “For Georgia” party.
  • Additionally, surveillance of Giga Bokeria, leader of the European Georgia, Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labour Party, Giorgi Vashadze “Strategy Agmashenebeli”, Zurab Japaridze of Girchi is also reported. This happened through tailing, and illicit recordings, sometimes during highly private occasions, such as – in Natelashvili’s case – family funerals. Giorgi Vashadze was, allegedly, also tailed during his visits in Ukraine.
  • One case of surveillance of the US Ambassador Kelly Degnan by two undercover agents was reported, during the opening ceremony of the new McDonalds fast food outlet.
  • The report said the recordings also show, that the “Georgian Dream” leaders were also under surveillance, but no specific corroborating evidence was shown.

Who are the handlers?

The report said all the names of the SSG department responsible of such surveillance were identified through the files. Several handlers were mentioned. For example, Shalva Natelashvili as well as Amb. Kelly Degnan were reportedly tailed by two agents, Papuna Partsvania and Mirian Khuroshvili. Their photos, allegedly taken to confirm their presence at McDonalds during their surveillance task, were also shown. Tamar Zambakhidze was reportedly identified as a coordinator of infiltrated agents.

How were the recordings obtained?

TV Pirveli said the files came into their possession “due to a fatal error by the SSG operatives”, but did not elaborate further.

How do the alleged targets of surveillance react?

  • Khatia Dekanoidze, of UNM, said the extent of surveillance was apparently massive, “They are listening to everything, my conversations with my parents, with my son, my private problems…they know everything and share this personal information with their bosses.”
  • Saba Buadze, Lelo, pointed out “their reliance on young people [as infiltration agents] is particularly revolted, they are trying to recruit young people in the best Soviet traditions [of security services].
  • Natia Mezrvrishvili, For Georgia: “today, SSG is not serving state security. It is serving one person [Bidzina Ivanishvili] and one party [“Georgian Dream”] […] Institutions of state are just instruments in hands of one person to maintain power and secure his money.”
  • Giga Bokeria, European Georgia: “there are several problems here: one is that if the state acts unchecked in this area, which, we have to admit, is not the new problem, then nobody is secure. But also, that if the government is spending resources on this, it means they are not spending resources on threats that concern us all – terrorism, external threats, organized crime. What we see, is the anatomy of treason of state interests.”

Parliament Chairperson reacts

Shalva Papuashvili, chairperson of the Parliament was first to react to the report, saying “sadly, we are used to disinformation, which grew exponentially in the past several months.” He added “some people, including in the media, are taken to serving simultaneously as the accuser, prosecutor and the judge […] it would be better if they followed the tangible proof, rather than persisting in this course.”

Responding to the question regarding the need for investigation, Speaker Papuashvili said “the Parliament is not an investigative body” and “can’t give instructions to launch investigation on a such superficial basis.”

SSG is yet to respond to the report.

Surveillance problem

As the “Georgian Dream” came to power, one of its key campaign pledges was to dismantle the system of surveillance used by the predecessor, the United National Movement. Some of the surveillance archives were reportedly destroyed during the first term of PM Garibashvili.

Yet, the legislative changes were consistently adopted in a direction – watchdogs say – that expands the government’s powers of surveillance. The GD-dominated Parliament adopted a controversial bill on surveillance in 2014, which was vetoed by the President and then declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in 2016 after GD majority overcame the veto. New bill adopted in 2017 on establishing the special service for surveillance operations was vetoed again by President Giorgi Margvelashvili and so was the piece of legislation that introduced surveillance-related amendments to the Criminal Code – this time by President Salome Zurabishvili. In all these cases, the ruling party voted to overcome the veto ignoring the opposition and watchdog concerns.

At the same time, there have been persistent allegations, and, more recently, massive data leaks of the alleged large-scale surveillance by security services to the benefit of the ruling party.

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