Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Georgian Coup Plotter Accused of Ties to Exiled State Security Minister

On May 11, Gaga Kirkitadze, the investigator for the Military Police of the Georgian Ministry of Defense announced the arrests of Majors Kakha Kobaidze and Davit Sulkhanishvili, the commanders of the 3rd and 1st infantry brigades of the Georgian armed forces respectively. Their arrest is connected to the mutiny of a tank brigade at the Mukhrovani military base on May 5. According to Kirkitadze, the two were well aware of the planned mutiny and they willfully concealed this information from the military command and law enforcement authorities. Consequently Kobaidze and Sulkhanishvili, who were immediately relieved of their military duties, face criminal charges in accordance with the Article 376 of the Criminal Code of Georgia (Failure to Report a Grave Crime), which provides punishment up to five years of imprisonment.

In a parallel development, the prominent Russian investigative journalist Yulia Latynina revealed more details about the Mukhrovani mutiny in the weekly radio program Kod Dostupa (Access Code) broadcast by the opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy on Saturday, May 9. In particular, Latynina points out that one of the principal organizers of the abortive coup attempt, Gia Gvaladze, the former commander of the Special Operations Brigade Delta, is a close friend and associate of the fugitive Georgian former State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze. Convicted by the Georgian authorities in absentia for organizing a failed assassination attempt on the then President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995 and wanted by Interpol, Giorgadze has been living in Moscow under the putative protection of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) ever since he fled Georgia in the aftermath of the aforementioned assassination attempt in 1995. In 2006, despite Tbilisi's numerous extradition requests and protests, Moscow granted Giorgadze political asylum.

From Moscow Giorgadze continued his involvement in the Georgian domestic political scene. The peak of his activities occurred in 2006 when he remotely administered the disparate group of marginal opposition parties and political movements, including the Justice Party, the Anti-Soros Movement and the Igor Giorgadze Foundation. The Justice Party was run on Giorgadze's behalf by his niece Maia Topuria. In September 2006 Topuria and twelve others were arrested for plotting to overthrow Saakashvili's government. Since then, in a display of his connections and financial prowess, Giorgadze spared no expense to hire high-profile American lawyers - Lawrence Barcella (with Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP) and Melinda Sarafa - to represent Topuria in the Tbilisi City Court. However, it appears that their efforts were in vain, as Topuria was sentenced in August 2007 to eight and a half years in prison. As it turns out, the lawyers hired by Giorgadze submitted Topuria's case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg sometime in late 2008. This lifted the self-imposed gag order on Giorgadze, who in a rare but extensive interview with the Russian magazine Profil in December 2008, boasted of having hired not only American lawyers but also "the lobbyist structures that work with the U.S. State Department."

Meanwhile, in the interview with the Ekho Moskvy on May 11, President Mikheil Saakashvili publicly disavowed ever making statements indicating the existence of the incontrovertible evidence suggesting the Russian connection to the Mukhrovani mutiny. At the same time President Saakashvili pointed out that the video recording of Gvaladze's discussion of coup details included reference to anticipated Russian military assistance. He further clarified that the coup plotters were mostly former military officials, who were in contact with other former military officials, who had long left Georgia and who were trying to destabilize the situation from abroad. In this regard it is worth recalling the conversation between President Saakashvili and the Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili at the Mukhrovani base on the day of the mutiny in which the former alluded to the "Kitovani's gang" in connection with the thwarted revolt. Similar to Giorgadze, Tengiz Kitovani, a disgraced former Georgian National Guard Commander and Defense Minister, who is thought to be personally responsible for provoking the Georgian-Abkhaz war in the early 1990s, has been living in Moscow since the early 2000s.

The cast of possible FSB protégés interested in fomenting unrest in Georgia would be incomplete without the mention of General Roman Dumbadze, who, as we are recently reminded by the Jamestown analyst and leading Russian military and security expert Pavel Felgenhauer, was released from custody in exchange for 12 Georgian soldiers captured by the Russian troops in Poti one week after the ceasefire agreement in August of last year. It should be recalled here that General Dumbadze was in charge of the Georgian army brigade in Batumi, the capital of the autonomous region of Ajara, in 2004, when the strongman ruler of Ajara, Aslan Abashidze came into confrontation with President Saakashvili over the non-payment of taxes to the state budget and other issues that plagued relations between Tbilisi and Batumi. Fiercely loyal to Abashidze, Dumbadze participated in blowing up bridges connecting Ajara to Georgia proper in the final stages of that confrontation. After Tbilisi restored control over Batumi and Abashidze fled to Moscow, Dumbadze was caught and sentenced to 17 years in prison for treason in 2006.