A gang of about two dozen heavily armed individuals attacked on February 3 the headquarters of the New Rights Party, the largest opposition group in Georgia. The attackers went specifically after New Rights leader David Gamkrelidze, who was meeting with leaders from another opposition party at the time of the incident.
The attackers ransacked Gamkrelidze's office, throwing a table, chairs, and ashtrays at him. They also threatened him with firearms. According to eyewitnesses, including this reporter, the attackers were deterred from opening fire by the presence of Gamkrelidze's personal security detail. Throughout the ordeal, Gamkrelidze remained calm as he sought to defuse the tense situation.
Allegedly, the attackers were supporters of the party's former Co-Chairman, Irakli Batiashvili, who chose to leave New Rights over the weekend after supporting the government's 2003 budget, which the New Rights, along with much of the opposition, opposed. Government sources claimed late February 3 that the incident was nothing more than an inter-party struggle. During the debate over the budget, Batiashvili argued that as chairman of parliament's Defense and Security Committee he had no choice but to support the budget, especially because it increased spending on defense.
The 2003 budget failed to pass parliament in December, and State Minister Avtandil Jorbenadze faced likely removal had the budget failed again on a revote in late January. As a result, parliamentarians faced significant pressure during the recent debate; allegations about vote buying and other forms of attacks on individual deputies were rampant. While Batiashvili's support was not decisive in passing the budget, his was one of several votes that saved the state minister and the government from possible dismissal. After the vote, New Rights leaders gave Batiashvili a choice of either staying as party co-chairman or remaining as chair of the Defense Committee. He declared his intention February 2 to stay on at his Defense Committee post. According to some of the attackers, they were protesting Batiashvili's decision to leave the party.
Having arrived in Tbilisi from Washington on February 1, I was sitting in David Gamkrelidze's front office, waiting for my 1:30 pm meeting with him when the attack on the party headquarters took place. The attackers seemed on the verge of shooting at Gamkrelidze when Irakli Batiashvili arrived, and ordered the men to step back. Batiashvili claimed that he did not know about the incident, and seemed very surprised by it. However, it seems almost impossible that such an incident could have been simply an inter-party fight, given the gravity of the attack. This was the analysis former Parliamentary Speaker Zurab Zhvania, who characterized such a notion as "simply irresponsible."
Zhvania's analysis of the incident was echoed by prominent opposition political leaders. A joint statement issued by opposition parties late February 3 described the incident "a planned special operation" and a "terrorist attack." The opposition's statement demanded that the attackers be arrested within 24 hours. It also called for the punishment of those who orchestrated the attack. The incident, according to the statement, serves as a "clear example of criminalization of the political process, which Georgian state agencies [have] undertaken in recent months." The statement also placed responsibility for this incident on "the executive government, particularly the president [Eduard Shevardnadze]." As of late February 3, neither the president nor the state minister had issued a statement about the incident.
Opposition leaders argued that between 20 and 30 individuals with weapons could not have reached the headquarters of the New Rights Party, given its location, had they not received support from the government. The headquarters is located 100 meters from the road that President Shevardnadze takes to and from his residence to the State Chancellery every day, and it is continuously protected by hundreds of special security forces. Today, when Rustavi 2 Television tried to film this route next to the New Rights office after the incident, the crew was immediately stopped by government security officers, and was told filming was not permitted without permission from the president's security service.
Given this level of security on the route, opposition leaders in television interviews declared that the attackers must have received at least tacit approval from the government. Meanwhile, according to the Minister of State Security Valeri Khaburzania, armed men could not have been on the "president's route" unless they entered from "a nearby special base," one he explained does not exist.
Many politicians and political analysts compared the February 3 attack on New Rights' office to a 1994 incident, during which the leader of what was then Georgia's leading opposition National Democratic Party, Gia Chanturia, was slain. Chanturia was viewed at the time as Shevardnadze's most influential political foe, and a likely presidential challenger. Chanturia's death left the opposition in disarray, allowing Shevardnadze to dominate Georgia's political landscape for almost a decade.
The attack serves as a harbinger of possible violence connected with parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place later this year. Some opposition leaders believe that some top government officials are willing to take drastic measures to maintain control over the legislature. Political analysts say control of parliament will be influential in determining the outcome of the 2005 presidential election.
The opposition joint statement expressed concern about the possibity of instability, saying it would consider government inaction on making arrests in the February 3 incident as tantamount to "the beginning of civil war." The statement added that the government's failure to prosecute the perpetrators would also leave the opposition no choice but to "resort to the most radical form of peaceful protest."
Editor's Note: Irakly Areshidze is a Visiting Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and regularly provides foreign policy advice to David Gamkrelidze.
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