If you could put the former Soviet state of Georgia on the couch, it would look like it was suffering from a particularly acute case of paranoia. But is there method in the supposed madness of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s obsession with Russian spies?
Another round up of alleged Moscow agents took in five photo-journalists this month, among them the president’s personal photographer Irakli Gedenidze and European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) photographer Zurab Kurtsikidze.
Accused of sending secret documents to Russian military intelligence, Kurtsikidze and Irakli Gedenidze had taken photos of the violent suprresion of opposition protests in May, widely distributed by the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA). It is this that appears to have been their real crime.
Opposition groups and independent rights NGOs are now calling for the case to be opened up to greater public scrutiny.
Gedenidze quickly confessed to spying, say Tblisi authorities, but the NGOs fear the testimony might have been given under the kind of “enhanced interrogation techniques” favoured by the US during the war in Iraq, where Georgian troops were sent to serve as part of Saakashvili’s efforts courting Washington’s favour.
Tbilisi’s efforts to win a place in NATO and Saakashvili’s thinly-disguised efforts to drive wedges between Georgians and Russians infuriated Moscow, drove a disastrous 2008 conflict between the two and fuelled the separatist expectations of two breakway provinces.
Given this, and the strategic significance of Georgia to Moscow’s Black Sea military profile, Saakashvili might well argue that just because he’s paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him. But his war on spies is paralysing public discourse in Georgia, and carries a whiff of McCarthyism.
Saakashvili conflates being “anti-Russian” with being “pro-Western” say opposition groups, and the Moscow ‘threat’ is being used to justify the denial of human rights and Russians the scapegoats for the Tbilisi government’s failures elsewhere. In a thickening atmosphere of suspicion quite a few opposition critics — neither pro- or anti-Russian — fear the spy hunt is cover for Saakashvili’s own authoritarian ambitions.
The violent police crackdown in May, documented by the photographers and attached to critcial news reports like this one, featuring Kurtsikidze’s work, helped draw public criticism of Saakashvili’s government from senior EU and OSCE figures.
Index on Censorship is adding its name to an international appeal to Tbilisi, calling on greater public scrutiny of the charges against the five arrested photojournalists: Kurtsikidze, Gedenidze, his wife Natela, photographer for the newspaper Prime Time, Giorgi Abdaladze, a photographer for the Foreign Ministry of Georgia and the newspaper Ilia and Associated Press photographer Shah Aivazov.
The evidence of espionage presented so far is skimpy. The list of Georgian citizens working at the UN that photographers are accused of distributing appears to be a public document on which someone has handwritten the words “Top Secret”.
Index and its co-signers urge the authorities “to conduct an impartial, independent, and effective investigation in accordance with international human rights standards” and that the international community in Georgia monitor the case against the photographers.
An open and fair inquiry into the charges is the quickest way of separating real threat from mere paranoia, and nationalist rhetoric from a real attack on freedom of expression.
Rohan Jayasekera is Associate Editor at Index on Censorship