By Tornike Kakalashvili
Georgia has been hit hard by the recent diplomatic scandal of allegedly illegal wiretapping of foreign ambassadors and the employees of diplomatic missions by the country’s domestic intelligence agency. The Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia has launched an investigation into violation of the secrecy of private communication. However, there is no progress yet and frankly, there is very little expectation for the authorities to conduct an impartial, effective and timely investigation considering the previous practice.
The skepticism regarding the state institutions is quite widely spread in Georgia as a sense of impunity and selective justice leaves the feeling that no high-ranking official will be held accountable for these illegal actions.
Among the targets of Georgia’s State Security Service were the Head of the EU delegation to Georgia, Ambassador Carl Hartzell, and the US ambassador Kelly Degnan. Besides foreign diplomats, clerics, politicians, journalists, civil servants, representatives of non-governmental organizations, the Public Defender and lawyers were tapped too. Many of them have already confirmed the authenticity of the materials.
The recordings of illegal wiretapping and surveillance surfaced on September 13 through some opposition-affiliated national TV channels and mainly contained private data of the influential Orthodox clergy. This is not the first case when a person’s private life, personal space, and private communication, which are protected by the Constitution of Georgia and a number of international accords, are grossly violated by the State Security Service of Georgia. Nevertheless, this scale was undoubtedly unprecedented – the data leaked to the media has shown that there is total control and surveillance of citizens by the Intelligence agency. And that is usually typical for totalitarian states, not for democratic ones.
The State Security Service has expressed readiness to cooperate closely with the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia at all stages of the investigation, stating, “It is in the agency’s objective interest the investigation to be comprehensive and thorough to answer all questions.” However, Grigol Liluashvili, Head of the State Security Service, has still not been summoned for questioning over the leak of secret recordings. He even assessed the ongoing scandal as a provocation. Liluashvili also responded to the opposition’s demand for his dismissal and noted that he could not be following the opposition’s lead.
The EU Ambassador to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, made a critical statement saying illegal surveillance and eavesdropping is not democracy. He also noted that Brussels is taking these instances very seriously. “We would not see it as natural that a close friend and partner such as Georgia would be engaged in these types of activities against us.”- Hartzell stated.
Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, scathingly criticized Hartzell’s abovementioned statement and said that it was not in full line with diplomatic standards, especially in the pre-election period. He has tried to downplay the spying allegations, stating diplomats are not wiretapped in Georgia and even claimed that the recordings did not arouse interest in public because “nonsense is spreading.” Furthermore, the Chairman of the Georgian Dream party verbally attacked some prominent representatives of the independent media outlets, after they exposed the covert surveillance, and called them “deprived people.”
Instead of taking responsibility and resigning, Irakli Gharibashvili, the Georgian Prime minister, has labeled the wiretapping scandal as “another dirty provocation” by the United National Movement, the country’s leading opposition party, which as he claims is attacking the main institutions of Georgia. “I am not saying that the opposition wiretaps and spreads the recordings but is it not a fact that the opposition is behind all this fabrication and falsification?” – Gharibashvili said.
Other members of the governing party have also tried to point the finger at the opposition for discrediting the country’s secret services. It should be noted that it’s typical for the Georgian ruling party to scapegoat the opposition for everything that’s going wrong in the country. Nika Melia, the leader of the UNM party has vowed that the State Security Service will be abolished once the opposition wins the election, but it sounds more like a populist promise rather than a real one.
Georgian Ambassador to the EU Vakhtang Makharoblishvili has been summoned to the EU headquarters in Brussels over wiretapping and surveillance of diplomats. The Georgian Foreign Ministry has responded to the spy scandal stating that Georgia is committed to all the international obligations that ensure the full, smooth functioning of the diplomatic corps in the country and adheres to the principles of the Vienna Convention.
On 4 October, a representative group of ambassadors of the diplomatic corps accredited in Georgia released a joint statement regarding the meeting with the Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia David Zalkaliani. According to the statement, grave concerns were expressed at the meeting concerning the reported recent wiretapping by security authorities. The Georgian Foreign Ministry has reported that Zalkaliani ‘reaffirmed the government’s interest to establish the truth’ about the case.
With regard to the mass surveillance scandal, some statements were made in the European Parliament as well. Michael Gahler, MEP and Vice-President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, said that the Georgian government just focuses on who disseminated this information, instead of investigating who gave the order for what is illegal under Georgian law. MEP Maria Kaljurand stated that espionage has no place in a democratic country.
Some Georgian experts and politicians have not ruled out the possibility of the European Union introducing certain sanctions against Georgia. The ongoing investigation needs to be highly transparent, though we see the opposite thing in Georgia. This scandal of illegal covert surveillance will certainly negatively affect Georgia’s Western aspirations. The post-soviet nation is preparing to formally apply for EU membership in 2024, which many see as a symbolic act as Georgia does not meet the EU requirements for membership in many ways.
This outrageous scandal, which has shaken the country, exposed many things. Primarily, the logical doubt that the law enforcement agencies are not functioning in a constitutional framework and fulfilling the political wills of the ruling party proved to be right. Even according to the OSCE reports, there is a blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state in Georgia.
South Caucasus nation, once referred to as “beacon of liberty for this region and the world” by the then US President George W. Bush, needs to immediately stop its deviation from the constitutional order and must have stronger safeguards against surveillance abuse as it poses an imminent threat to its further democratic development.
It is noteworthy that since 2012, when the Georgian Dream came to power, there has been no single case when Georgia’s State Security Service has brought down the spy network of hostile Russia, which invaded the former Soviet republic back in 2008 and since then has occupied 20% of its internationally recognized territories. It raises serious questions, such as why Georgian security services are eavesdropping on its Western partners and have not discovered any Russian agents in 9 years?! Is Bidzina Ivanishvili, a “gray cardinal” of Georgia, who made his fortune in Russia, trying to shift the country’s Western course towards Russia step by step?! Why does the current government prove by its actions to be less dedicated to a European future for Georgia than it professes?! There are loads of credible reasons why the Georgian Dream government is frequently labeled as pro-Russian by the opposition.
The Georgian government, through covert surveillance of diplomats, has undermined the trust and spirit of partnership between its western allies and that needs to be fixed as soon as possible.