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12.04.11

Georgian Opposition Says the Country's Democracy Is Slipping

The former Soviet state has been praised in the West for shaking off authoritarian tactics. But in an exclusive interview with Eli Lake, a leading opposition figure suggests a shocking case of political murder.

On Sept. 17, a 47-year old Georgian Defense Ministry official named Tamaz “Sergo” Tetradze was arrested in the Republic of Georgia on charges of espionage. Seven days later, the government announced that this veteran of the Soviet Army and suspected Russian spy died in prison of a heart attack.

Depending on who in Georgia is talking, the incident is either an unfortunate accident or a political murder. And the case is raising a broader dialogue about the state of democracy inside Georgia.

“He was taken into the Defense Ministry, he was beaten up, and he died,” Georgian opposition leader Irakli Alasania alleged in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I made a big deal out of it and called for an investigation. Why is there no investigation?”

Georgia’s deputy minister of justice, Tina Burjaliani, disputes this version of events, but isn't elaborating because of an ongoing investigation. “The investigation was opened immediately,” she said. “A number of investigative activities have taken place and the investigation is still pending. The purpose is to identify the cause of the death and the possible persons who can be responsible and to identify whether there was any responsibility.” She added that a comprehensive autopsy is still pending.

Alasania said he was raising the case last week in Washington in part because it is “something that shows there is no accountability from the counter-intelligence, police, and defense forces to the public and to the Parliament and the civil control of the defense forces.”

For most of the former Soviet republics, the secret police have the same kinds of unchecked powers that the KGB enjoyed during the Soviet empire even after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili’s government, however, has won praise from the State Department and lawmakers like Sen. John McCain for making reforms in the state police, state economies, and political system to allow more freedom than its neighbors.

But since Saakashvili first came to power in 2005, a viable political opposition to the charismatic president has not really emerged. Without a real check on its power, the current government has at times overreached.

Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, said the government’s “greatest weakness is their political strength.”

“They really do have support from 70 percent of the population,” said Wilson, who served as senior director at the National Security Council between 2007 and 2009 for European affairs. “But this is not a healthy dynamic. It’s both a failure of the opposition and a failure of the government. The failure of the opposition to become a viable political force puts at risk Georgia’s aspirations to move into the West, and the government’s political strength is its greatest liability because Georgia needs a viable opposition.”

Alasania’s own Free Democrats party may be looking to change that. He said that he will join forces with Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. But thus far that partnership has gotten off to a rocky start.

'The government’s political strength is its greatest liability because Georgia needs a viable opposition.'

On Oct. 11, the Georgian Justice Ministry revoked the citizenship of Ivanishvili in what appeared to be a reaction to his announcement to enter Georgian politics. Georgian citizenship law does not allow dual citizenship unless that second country is Russia, and Ivanishvili holds a French passport. 
 
A week later, Georgian authorities seized an armored car containing $2 million and 1 million euros in cash belonging to Ivanishvili on the pretext of a potential violation of campaign election laws. 
 
“My concern is that the Georgian government is overreacting to Ivanishvili," Wilson said. "Because of that they are going to draw more attention to their actions rather than those of Ivanishvili.” Wilson, however, also said that Ivanishvili should be “scrutinized.” 
 
Georgian officials interviewed for this piece said it was suspicious for a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia to enter politics when Russia has since 2008, in their view, sought to topple Saakashvili's government. The Georgian billionaire at one point owned nearly 2 percent of the total stock of the Russian state energy concern, Gazprom. “You don’t get to own that much stock in Gazprom without being close to Putin,” one senior Georgian official said.  
 
Ivanishvili has also said he would not advocate as forcefully for Russian troops to leave the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that they have encamped in since the 2008 Georgia-Russian war. “When I come to power, I do not intend to call on the U.S. and European Union every day to oust Russia from the occupied regions and thereby give an illusion to my people that the problem is being solved,” he told the Georgian newspaper Rezonansi last month. 
 
When asked about this quote, Alasania said he spoke with Ivanishvili about it when the piece came out. “I talked with him about this, and he thinks we have to do more groundwork inside of Georgia to counter the threats coming from Russia. It means we are going to work with the West to pressure the country,” he said. 
 
Alasania’s own view is that Russia remains a threat to Georgia and it is unfair for Saakashvili’s supporters to say his party and their billionaire backer are a stalking horse for Moscow. “I have been a counterintelligence officer,” Alasania told The Daily Beast. “I know Russia is an enemy; there is no doubt their intelligence services are active.” 
 
But Alasania also said that reaction to the intelligence activities from Russia inside Georgia has been a threat to Georgia’s democracy as well. “This spy mania is used as a narrative to curb the political rights of the people,” he said. 
 
In this respect, Alasania said his own movements and communications are monitored by unaccountable divisions of the Interior Ministry. “They are acting as a political police; they are the ones that are watching us, surveilling us; my emails are checked, my phone is tapped; when I am meeting in Tblisi and in campaigns they are filming my meetings with people,” he said. 
 
When asked about these charges, Georgia’s national-security adviser, Giga Bokeria, said a year ago he established a hotline for Alasania with one of his deputies to alert his office whenever there were acts of intimidation. 
 
“I proposed a year ago to him that he call my deputy as a kind of informal hotline if there was any concern with respect to intimidation, freedom of assembly, or any kind of problems related to his party’s campaigning,” Bokeria said. “His deputies have called three times on issues which I am not discounting as unimportant, but these incidents are far from the picture that he is trying to paint of systematic persecution.” 
 
Alasania countered that Bokeria is not in a position to check the excesses of the Constitution Protection Department at the Interior Ministry. “Yes, we have this hotline,” he said. “But they are not in a position sometimes to do something about this because it is the Constitution Protection Department of the Ministry of Interior, and they are uncontrolled and unchecked.”