by Rumwold Leigh
When I first arrived in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia from the UK in 2007, buildings were going up and the country seemed to be trying to find a way forward from an obvious economic low prior to the 2003 Rose Revolution.
But I also heard a lot of complaints about Mikheil Saakashvili, the President. Why? How did those things fit together?
Saakashvili and his ‘gang’
It didn’t take long for reality to dawn. Policy wasn’t the problem with Mikheil Saakashvili and his ‘gang’ – a term to be understood literally. A consistent pattern of behaviour emerged – murder, abuse of power, misuse of administrative resources, torture, racketeering, electoral fraud, terrorising of businesses and opponents and blatant robbery of the treasury – and lying through their teeth about it.
The usual Western attitude towards governments of this sort is that you can’t expect any better in the inexperienced developing world. Right, show me the evidence that Georgians who live in other countries, under their laws and electoral systems, commit such crimes more frequently than anyone else. Those who hold the levers of power are responsible for the conduct of that power – and their allies, the Western democracies which claim to be the opposite, but support such rulers precisely because they can use their countries to do things they would never get away with at home.
There was no public oversight of the Saakashvili regime. The only mechanism for expressing discontent was street protests. There were plenty of these, until the riot police moved in and rioted against the population – bashing heads and gassing those peacefully gathered. The one weapon the ordinary Georgian had was the truth.
Since before Soviet times, Georgians have become impervious to official doublespeak. Whenever they hear the official version of anything they know what is really going on, to an extent we never do in the West, where the conduct of public officials is not such an issue. In the Western world, when official accounts are thought to be lies the public’s interpretation often turns out to be equally wrong. In Georgia it is proven right time and again. There may not be any consequences today, but read your Bible. In Georgia they do, and its rulers know it.
On May 21st 2008 a parliamentary “election” was held in Georgia. As expected, Saakashvili’s United National Movement won an overwhelming victory, and as expected, official observers said the elections were broadly free and fair despite the huge and well documented evidence of fraud – independent observers being beaten up, returning officers arriving at the polling station in the middle of the afternoon with the final result on a piece of paper in their pocket, grave media imbalance, extra ballot boxes being brought in full of ballots cast by non-existent voters at non-existent addresses, the usual thing. But the TV news that day was dominated by another story. Apparently a group of Georgian voters, seeking to exercise their democratic rights, had been fired upon by Abkhaz separatists in a field near the village of Khurcha.
Georgian media aired dramatic footage of this incident, which occurred in the demilitarised zone bordering the separatist region of Abkhazia. Two buses and a group of voters were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades in the village of Khurcha. According to the Georgian government, the attack was perpetrated by Abkhaz gunmen working in conjunction with Russian forces purportedly deployed as peacekeepers in the demilitarised zone.
Controversial Election Day Coverage
Indeed, it was reported on Georgian State TV and Rustavi2 that proxy forces of the Russian backed separatist regime of Abkhazia had opened fire on two buses that were carrying voters wanting to participate in the Georgian Parliamentary Elections. The story was immediately picked up by local and international news, and proved to be the major story of the day, so much so that it overshadowed the highly controversial Election Day coverage.
Some otherwise trustworthy media outlets reported that – “…locals wanted to vote, but the de facto authorities’ denied access to Georgian polling stations on the territory it controlled and blocked the bridge to the neighbouring Georgian-controlled region of Mingrelia. The Georgian authorities offered those from the Gali region of Abkhazia the next best solution: if they could reach the Georgian-administered village of Khurcha on foot, buses would transport them to a special polling station established in Zugdidi, the main town of Mingrelia”.
So, we were told, Georgia is democratic, and its breakaway region, self-governing Abkhazia, run by crazed maniacs who hate democracy. Of course Georgians love to hear this, and were prepared to suspend their disbelief in order to score points against the separatists, which actually isn’t hard in any circumstances. But this was Saakashvili. What was the catch? As always, it didn’t take long to find out.
Everyone laughs at conspiracy theories until they live in the middle of them. If you read the work of Jeffrey Silverman, an American journalist living in Georgia, you think he is a lunatic – he makes claims so extreme you can’t take them seriously, until the truth emerges and you find it is even worse than he said. Jeffrey is a tough southerner from Virginia, former US military, forward observer, Scout, who was married to an ethnic Armenian from Georgia for 10 years. He sent her, Margarita Sarishvili, a doctor of transfusion medicine, to the UK for an education; she disappeared and never came back.
Now in his fifties, Jeffrey had previously worked for a long time for a tobacco company in the US and Brazil, and as if in reaction to this experience, was now living in Tbilisi and spending his time seeking out tales of corruption – especially the sort that involves Americans. His investigations and articles on cover-ups, covert operations, large NGO funds slipping into personal pockets, arms deals and unexplained murders had by 2008 made him a well-known figure in the city, cursed and adored in equal measure.
See link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LX0Gt1dacZ0
He has repeatedly made outlandish claims about U.S. Government and CIA activity in Georgia, such as that in Pankisi Gorge where the US funds Chechen fighters/terrorists via USAID and USDA-funded NGOs, which are so unbelievable that American Embassy staff have had him tortured and beaten up (and participated), murdered at least one of his friends (Roddy Scott, a British journalist), and robbed him of valid US nationality and access to his US based health insurance for making them. To regain his rights, he will have to travel to the US to challenge these determinations in a US court – which would, by a strange coincidence, get him out of Georgia. Why would they do all this, I wonder? Or rather I don’t, I’ve been there, I’ve seen such things happen with my own eyes.
Obviously, when people fire rocket-propelled grenades at your citizens this requires an international investigation. There was one. The UN came and found that the only direction these grenades, which had blown up vehicles and seriously injured several people, could have been fired from was where the Georgian special forces had been standing. If the Abkhaz separatists had a new type of grenade which can turn 180 degrees in mid-air and strike a target, without being launched by anything, the world would know about it.
Independent weapons experts, who make the sort of grenades and rocket launchers used, said the same. The UN also asked why the people fired at had been taken to that place by Georgian officials and told they were taking part in a photo opportunity. They also asked why cameramen from several government-controlled TV stations were filming this apparently irrelevant field, and so just happened to catch the incident, when voters were going to the polls throughout Georgia, and few people had ever even heard of this village.
Outrageous, unprintable, unreportable
Jeffrey Silverman reported that Saakashvili had fired at his own citizens to detract attention from the poll violations and widespread violence on Election Day. Outrageous, unprintable, unreportable, he was told. But the Georgian public and the Georgian Human Rights Centre didn’t tell him that. They knew what the investigators would say before anyone else – not that anyone asked them, they’re not paying the UN’s wages. They also knew Jeffrey’s ability to get to the truth under difficult circumstances, as he had done so many times before. As they recognise the truth when they see it, the story didn’t go away.
Eventually the U.S. decided the Saakashvili gang were too much of a liability and plucked an apolitical businessman out of nowhere to lead a new favoured party and clean the stables. Five years after the outrageous claim, two Georgian officials from local regional governments, part of Saakashvili’s state apparatus, have now been arrested and charged with doing exactly what Silverman said Saakashvili’s gang had done.
The Interior Ministry has announced that former head of the Department of Constitutional Security of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic within the Georgian Interior Ministry, Roman Shamatava, and a former ministry employee from the special task unit in the Samegrelo region, Malkhaz Murgulia, have been arrested on terrorism charges.
It said that the two men “together with other” (unspecified) “high-ranking Interior Ministry officials organised and carried out a terrorist act with the purpose of terrorising the peaceful population.”
Lots of other folk have been arrested too, for crimes long known by the public but ignored by the state. If the U.S. didn’t know about all this it wouldn’t have invented the new guys, who took power in October 2012. Strangely enough though, it hasn’t offered to compensate the victims of its own complicity, or those who became victims for knowing too much.
The funny thing about the truth is that it never goes away. Most of us actually regret that in our daily lives. But refusing to listen to those who know doesn’t help. It just gets other people’s sons and daughters robbed, tortured and terrorised, and Western democracies and their peoples implicated.
At long last some medium-level officials have been arrested in relation to this terrorist act dating back to 2008, known ever since as the Khurcha Incident. People all over the world and the Georgian government are now listening attentively to Jeffrey Silverman. So now the question is not what went on in Georgia during that time but who will be arrested next?
Jeffrey K. Silverman, 25 years resident of the former Soviet Union, since October 1991, resides in Tbilisi Georgia worked with Radio Free Europe, crime, corruption, and terrorism report. USAR, 100th Division Training, Fort Knox and Blue Grass Army Chemical Weapons Depot, ROTC program, University of Kentucky bases: decorated non-wartime veteran, 19D, Cavalry Scout. Jeffrey has a track record in breaking through language barriers and bureaucracies to perform due diligence under unconventional circumstances.
He has also served as Editor-in-Chief of the Georgian Times and Azerbaijan Today, whilst undertaking freelance journalism and due diligence for various confidential clients. Has specialized in conflict zones, mostly in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and countries of Central Asia; MSc Degree plus the University of Kentucky, provided with full-tuition scholarship based on Cherokee roots and academic standing, the family escaped “trail of tears” while passing Ohio in the harsh winter; one set of Eastern European grandparents: Lithuanian-Polish Jews.
Completed advanced degree, MSc plus 40 credits, in cooperation with Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, studied theoretical frameworks for the analysis of political systems, conflict resolution, international science, and technology policy.