Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Counter-Revolution Fears

Violence and fear tarnishes Georgia's bloodless overthrow of Shevardnadze.
By Zaza Baazov

A series of mysterious blasts and acts of intimidation against politicians in Georgia is rattling nerves less than two weeks after opposition leaders overturned the government in a peaceful, "velvet revolution".

In the latest incident, a night-time explosion rocked the offices of the State Television Company on December 3, shattering all the windows on the ground floor and damaging some studios when water gushed from ruptured pipes. No one was hurt in the incident, but journalists were nervous.

"We heard an explosion at around 10 pm. The noise was so loud it seemed part of the building had collapsed," one told IWPR.

The blast, the fourth violent incident in Tbilisi in a week, came one day before Mikhail Saakashvili, leader of the victorious coalition that forced president Eduard Shevardnadze from power on November 23, launched his official campaign for the presidency.

The peaceful nature of Shevardnadze's overthrow was welcomed in Russia, the United States and elsewhere. Shevardnadze, ruler of Georgia for the last decade and a veteran former Soviet foreign minister, was ousted after weeks of opposition rallies protesting against what were widely described as rigged parliamentary elections on November 2.

In accordance with the constitution, he was temporarily replaced by parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, one of the key opposition leaders. Emergency presidential elections have been set for January 4 and Saakashvili, head of the reformist National Movement and an American-trained lawyer, is considered the overwhelming favourite.

Now, fears are mounting in the strategically placed, but impoverished Caucasus country that the "velvet" coup may have started to turn rough. And each side is blaming the other - Saakashvili's allies warning of a counter-revolution and the new opposition speaking of "post-revolution terror".

"These developments represent attempts by certain destructive forces to rock the boat before the presidential elections," Georgy Baramidze, acting minister of the interior, told journalists on December 3.

Saakashvili himself has warned that "the political opponents of this provisional administration realize they have no other means to stop Saakashvili from becoming president, but to physically eliminate him".

So far, however, most victims appear to be aligned against Saakashvili.

In one late-night incident, on December 2, unidentified gunmen attacked the flat of Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, who had headed the pro-Shevardnadze block at the disputed parliamentary elections.

At dawn on November 29, a hand-grenade exploded outside the office of the Labour Party, which has been opposed both to the provisional government and Shevardnadze's administration.

And on November 27, the flat of Luba Eliashvili, manager of the Iberia Channel, was attacked with automatic weapons. Iberia is known for its critical coverage of current domestic events.

The temporary government is scrambling to shore up its grip on power against the tight deadline of the January presidential poll. No date has yet been set for new parliamentary elections.

The third main revolutionary leader, acting minister of state Zurab Zhvania, told IWPR that the sooner the provisional administration becomes permanent the better. But he alleged a fundraising campaign was in progress to help the former regime regain power. "We know of a series of attempts to bring weapons into the country," he said.

Intelligence services and police have also warned of potential violence. A National Security Ministry official said there are indications that "both the former and incumbent political leaders may be targeted by political terror groups. One fateful gunshot is enough to explode the situation".

In a further sign of political tensions, Saakashvili has recently publicly advised Shevardnadze to "leave the country for a few days or a couple of weeks during the presidential elections" to ensure he kept out of "dubious political games".

Opponents of the new government say they are not to blame.

Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, leader of the pro-Shevardnadze Socialist Party, told IWPR, "The situation is so complicated and tense right now we cannot say with certainty who could possibly benefit from these acts of terror."

Late that same night, December 2, unidentified attackers trashed the office of the firm run by Rcheulishvili's wife and daubed slogans linking themselves to the radical youth movement Kmara. Kmara's leadership denied involvement.

The situation in the country is aggravated by the fact that the majority of political parties and movements have vowed to boycott the new elections.

Aslan Abashidze, leader of the autonomous region Adjaria, has publicly denounced the new regime and closed its administrative borders with Georgia. This has raised fears that Georgia, already suffering two separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, may disintegrate further.

While many analysts say that counter-revolutionary forces are trying to stir trouble and ruin Georgia's international image, critics of the new regime say they will be the main victims.

They predict mass judicial persecution of former government officials, such as pro-Shevardnadze stalwarts Levan Mamaladze, ex-governor of Kvemo-Kartli region, the former chief of the railways department Akaky Chkhaidze, and current defence minister David Tevzadze.

There are fears the persecution may also await the independent Mze TV channel, which the new administration has repeatedly accused of "inciting counter-revolution".

Labour Party leader Shalva Natelashvili was pessimistic, telling IWPR, "There is a real threat of a civil war in Georgia now that impostors have usurped power."

But David Zurabishvili of the Freedom Institute, one of the most influential NGOs in Georgia, said a "witch hunt" was unlikely.

However, he said although counter-revolutionary forces had little popular support, bureaucrats still loyal to Shevardnadze have "access to substantial financial resources and long-standing links with the criminal world".

Ordinary Georgians are also in two minds.

Supporters of the new administration fear that Shevardnadze and his team are going to put up a fight. Nana Kapanadze, a schoolteacher from Tbilisi who took an active part in opposition protests, is an enthusiastic supporter of the new leaders, but fears more acts of sabotage from revanchist forces. "We must be prepared for decisive action if we don't want to lose Ajaria the same way we lost Abkhazia and [South] Ossetia," she told IWPR.

Nodar Merabishvili, a businessman from Gurjaani, said all recent developments had no relevance to the day-to-day life of common people. "They are going to kill each other. The strong will go after the weak, calling it a counter-revolution, a purge, or whatever. Blood is always shed when struggle for power is on," he said.

Zaza Baazov is an independent journalist in Tbilisi.

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