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Can Georgia ditch its surveillance culture?

Mikheil Saakashvili may have left his native Georgia for Odessa, but one particular legacy of his years in power is still strong. Русский


According to his opponents, one of the main indictments against Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili was the all-embracing surveillance system he created. During the rough decade of Saakashvili’s rule, you would often hear people muttering we can’t talk about this on the phone into their mobiles. People would travel out of Tbilisi to talk about anything confidential, taking the batteries out of their phones to avoid their conversations being picked up

Indeed, even Saakashvili isn’t immune from the system. Last autumn, two recordings of alleged phone conversations between Saakashvili, a senior Ukrainian public official and a Georgian IS commander were made public. Saakashvili may now be governor of Odessa, but back in Georgia the question of surveillance hasn’t gone away.

The power monopoly

“In those days when we picked up the phone we’d always say, ‘Hello, Vano’,” Sofio Khorguani, a former deputy ombudsman, tells me. Vano refers to the interior minister of the time, Vano Merabishvili, an NGO activist who became one of the most influential men in the Georgian government after the Rose Revolution in 2003. Merabishvili was responsible for, among other things, surveillance operations in Georgia.  

Back in 2006-2009, Sofio worked as deputy to ombudsman Sozara Subari. Sofio realised that things were going wrong when officials who had worked under Shevardnadze, the previous president, were dismissed from their posts without any severance package.

Georgia's presidential palace in 2013, built under Mikheil Saakashvili. Photo (c) Jan A. Nicolas / Demotix“You had the public prosecution service, the courts and the prisons all in the same hands,” Khorguani tells me. “As a result anyone who was your enemy — or maybe you just wanted to take over his business — had nowhere to go. When everything is run by the same people, the average person is defenceless. And ever since that time many people think that if that’s what western civilisation looks like, we’re better off without it.”

After leaving the post of deputy ombudsman, Sofio decided to get involved in politics and began working with the centre-right Republican Party, which was founded by dissidents back in the late 1970s. Now Sofio is a businesswoman who continues to offer free consultancy on policing matters and runs the well-known online political forum, Planeta.ge.

You had the public prosecution service, the courts and the prisons all in the same hands

“Before the war over South Ossetia in 2008,” Sofio tells me, “whenever there was a cock-up, Saakashvili’s supporters would say: ‘We’re building a new system of government, mistakes are bound to happen, When Russian forces were attacking fleeing citizens around Gori, no one in the police had any idea where and how to look for the people who had disappeared or been taken prisoner.

“I personally broke down the doors of nursery schools to provide shelter for the refugees. But after the war, I realised that there was no system, there was no government. It was all just a façade. And if there were no institutions, why were we going through all this hardship?”

Institutions in name only

“In the Georgia of those years, many institutions consisted of no more than a name plate on a door. But information was being collected very actively,” Beso Aladashvili, a retired colonel, tells me. Between 1991 and 2005, Aladashvili worked as an analyst for Georgia’s Ministry of State Security, producing reports on the activities of the Armenian, Russian and Turkish security services. Now he teaches postgraduate courses in economic security, and heads his own Center for Public Control of Security Service Activity.

“What’s going on in Russia today is the same as under Saakashvili,” the former colonel tells me. “Journalists were harassed and murdered. Cops were happy to tail people in return for cheap property loans.”

Where now? Saakashvili in Tbilisi's Old Town, July 2015. Photo CC: Maxim EdwardsRight up to Saakashvili’s fall in 2013, Aladashvili says, patrol cars would tail the president’s opponents until they caught them committing some traffic offence, and then suspend their licences. Several dozen drivers I met while hitch-hiking confirmed this, but were reluctant to expand further on this unpleasant subject.

Indeed, the country’s path from Soviet republic to independent state has been rocky. Based on the country’s legal system, media independence, level of corruption and freedom of speech, Georgia scored 4.83 points out of seven (where seven was the lowest), in the Freedom House democracy index in 2003. In 2010, its rating fell to 4.93. But by 2014, it had risen slightly, to 4.63.

Development versus democracy

There is no point in carrying out reforms without mass support, political analyst Gela Vasadze tells me. Under Saakashvili, Vasadze served as deputy mayor of Batumi, the capital of Adjara, an autonomous republic on Georgia’s Black Sea coast that is the country’s major tourist and transport hub.

“For Saakashvili, development was more important than democracy. That’s clear,” says Vasadze. “He explained it like this: to have democracy, you need a certain standard of living, say $8,000 per person per year. In any case, he had no intention of carrying out any democratic reform.”

For Saakashvili, development was more important than democracy

This former government official now considers himself a libertarian in the mould of the American writer Ayn Rand. Vasadze writes for the Ukrainian press about the Georgian view of the war in Ukraine, and heads an NGO and media platform called The Freedom Zone which would be happy to see Saakashvili back in power. It’d be hard to accuse Vasadze of supporting the present rulers of either Georgia or Russia. The doormat outside his flat, in an area of the city inhabited by the intellectual classes who generally voted against Saakashvili, is imprinted with a portrait of Vladimir Putin.

“We can see from our own experience how difficult it is to win active support for reform,” Vasadze tells me. “The only way out would be to build democracy using undemocratic methods. We can see what’s happening now in Ukraine. There’s also the example of Armenia, where, after the collapse of the USSR, real democrats, intellectuals without a trace of authoritarianism, opponents of a power vertical, came to power. It all ended badly: the bureaucratic elite destroyed the democrats and military-minded nationalists took over.”

Georgias experience was comparatively bloodless, but it was no less colourful. After 2003, the Georgian opposition organised a march on the capital. But Saakashvili, who had come to power on the wave of protests, ordered it to be dispersed in an operation best remembered for the fact that the police wore Mickey Mouse masks.

“That [march] was an attempted coup supported by the Russian security services,” claims Vasadze. “Tbilisi was on the brink of real violence, which was only averted thanks in part to the active work of our own security services.. So yes, our government resorted to something their predecessors hadn’t done — they suppressed the opposition. And that’s realpolitik, if you like, but not an anti-democratic measure. If the protesters had won, there would have been no democracy at all.”

Ineffective power structures

After the pro-Saakashvili coalition was defeated in the parliamentary elections of 2012, almost 30,000 files — text, audio and video — came to light. According to Tamara Kaldani, data protection inspector at the time, this data comprised 260 gigabytes of information — more than 1,760 hours of recordings.

Telephone box in Tbilisi, Georgia, 2003. James W. Berk/Flickr. Some rights reservedPeople got pretty nervous. This anxiety lapsed into the ridiculous: when lights were installed in the hallways of apartment blocks in Tbilisi, the first thought that came into residents’ heads was “and now they’ve installed cameras as well!”

“The main point was to keep tabs on the opposition, not to process the data,” says Aladashvili. “They installed Chinese technology that could tap all mobile phones, but what was the point if we had nobody to process the results?” Indeed, today Georgia still suffers from a surplus of useless apparatchiks. The former security service officer believes that people are appointed through personal connections, rather than patriotism, integrity and professionalism.

“All over the world, projects are target-based. What outcome do you want to achieve and what resources do you need to achieve it? If a project is financed through a government grant approved by parliament, then the security services can’t use that money to spy on the population. But we still base funding on the number of people employed on it,” he concludes.

Same old, same old?

Phone tapping is in operation all over the world, and Georgia is no exception, Vasadze tells me, recalling the times when his SIM cards stopped working for no reason.

“Our present government, despite all their promises, does nothing to stop it, and indeed resorts to it itself,’ says Vasadze. “I’m sure that our new government has been unable to extract anything useful out of the data, apart from staging stunts. But they go on tapping, just as in Saakashvili’s time.”

The atmosphere is, however, changing. “Today the harassment of economic competitors is in the past,” says Beso Aladashvili. “But politically motivated surveillance is possibly still there. Recently a journalist spoke out about phone tapping on a live TV show, something that would have been unthinkable in the past.”

Earlier, in March 2015, the Rustavi-2 TV channel disclosed the existence of recordings of phone conversations between officials and business people, though the ruling party claimed that these had been made during Saakashvili’s presidency. And former Deputy Ombudsman Sofio Khorguani tells me that when immediately after the new government came to power, spy footage of a civil activist was made public. Suspicion fell on a senior police official; the matter was investigated and went to court. That would also have been impossible before.

“Even if they do tap us, nobody cares any more,” she says. “They transcribe our calls, so what? Nobody worries about being fired from work over a phone call. How could they use the stuff? As blackmail? You couldn’t scare anybody with that today. No one gets fired or harassed for political conversations now. But we are still far from certain that it couldn’t start again.”

A woman walks past campaign billboards in the run-up to the 2010 elections, Tbilisi. Photo (c) RFE/RL / Demotix“It’s simply been turned into a kind of national hysteria. It’s all down to the PR people. There’s a lot of Russian money in our media now,” Vasadze tells me.

Vasadze believes that everything depends on how news and information are presented to the public, and that the atmosphere of fear is fuelled not just by the government, but the propaganda industry.

During Saakashvili’s presidency, Russian journalists and bloggers regularly came on press trips to Georgia and wrote enthusiastically about the new architecture of police stations and ministries. There was less coverage, however, of what went on behind the glass walls of these opulent buildings with their free wi-fi.
  
So when videos of torture taking place in Gldani Prison in 2012 were revealed to the public, many were baffled. Vasadze, however, believes that the footage was staged, and that 150 or so political prisoners who were released were Russian agents. Many Georgians would agree with him: “It’s all a campaign to discredit the president.”

“Saakashvili always had to operate in a media war situation. The real reason for his fall was a failure of communication with the Georgian public,” Vasadze tells me. “As an experienced political analyst, I know that he was a good administrator, a good manager and, of course, an active PR man, albeit not a good one. It’s possible that traffic cops did harass oppositionists. But neither Saakashvili nor his team were from another planet. They grew up in the Soviet Union, and the even more ghastly Shevardnadze era, when really terrible things went on. And now the new guard tell us that things will be different, but their subordinates still have the old mindset. And when there’s someone they don’t like, who annoys them, they go back to the old ways, knowing that they they’ll get away with it.”

Vasadze also notes that the lower ranks of the police are still loyal to the old guard, although the old interior minister Vano Merabishvili is behind bars. “They are very reluctant to carry out detention orders, for example. At one demo they even said, in so many words: ‘We understand everything, but what can we do? We’ll try to be less ham-fisted.’. Or you might be driving along with an MP and get stopped by a police patrol car, and you worry about getting a ticket, but he salutes and says: ‘I joined the force in Vano’s time; you were much better than the new lot. Thank you.’”

Infiltration is the real threat

Aladashvili believes there is a much more serious problem than phone tapping: infiltration by secret services. After the breakup of the USSR the KGB carried off a lot of archive documents from the republics to Moscow, to use for compromising purposes.

Pedestrians look out onto Tbilisi from a city underpass. Photo (c) Oleksandr Rupeta / Demotix“Our grandfathers are sacred for us”, he says, “but if the Russians release a file proving that your relative collaborated with the KGB, you can say goodbye to your career”. Aladashvili distrusts lift operators and secretaries in government offices, who go on working there while governments rise and fall. He claims that they are often in the pay of the security services—and not just those of Georgia.

“Even though all the archives were taken to Moscow, the KGB knew all their agents by name” Gela Vasadze tells me. “The security services have most influence in border areas such as Adjara and Samtskhe-Javakheti. In the Soviet years there were quotas for informers: in the towns it would be five per 1000 inhabitants; in the republican capitals 10; and in border regions more than 100 – one in ten of the population. There are lots in our organisation, some of whom I know personally, and there is infiltration in all political parties. You can easily tell them by their behaviour, but we keep them on to avoid having new ones foisted on us. I have even installed an online video camera in my office to make things easier for the police.”

Evolution towards democracy?

After Saakashvili’s fall, the new regime removed anti-terrorist and anti-corruption operations, as well as drug control, from the security services’ remit. “Everyone wanted to divide up the ‘Superministry’, as it was known, but the old guard is still there. And so is their desire to please the bosses, so the spying may well be continuing as well,” says Aladashvili.

Despite the reforms of 2014, the changes in the law ‘on Operational Activity’ escaped significant alteration, thanks to opposition from the Interior Ministry. So Parliament was unable to pass amendments that would have seriously restricted the security services’ opportunities to listen to telephone conversations.

Public information video by the ‘This affects you’ campaign against wiretapping. Still via YouTube.In response to this, at the end of 2014 civil rights activists launched a campaign, under the slogan, ‘This affects you – they’re bugging us again’. According to the amendments, the Interior Ministry holds a ‘key’ to the surveillance system, which cannot be used without the permission of a personal data protection inspector.

The campaign has been supported by the US based Open Society Foundation, Transparency International and The Association of Young Lawyers of Georgia. Unfortunately, neither the personal data protection inspectorate nor the Association of Young Lawyers could provide any comment on the situation.

Civil rights activists launched a campaign, under the slogan, ‘This affects you – they’re bugging us again’

Georgia’s current government broadly follows the same policies as all its previous ones. Under Shevardnadze, Russian military bases were closed down; under Saakashvili foreign advisers were actively encouraged, and in 2015 a NATO training centre was opened.

Rights campaigner Sofio Khorguani believes that post-Saakashvili, Georgia has decided on a slow, evolutionary path towards democracy. “In the first place, victims of crime were previously not allowed any information about their case. And if the public prosecutor’s office was in cahoots with the criminals, there was no way of tracing anything. Secondly, there have been changes in the system of appointing high court judges: it has become more democratic, and the High Council of Justice now includes not only politicians from the various parties but legal experts and Council of Justice members.”

Finally, Sofio concludes: “Any surveillance operation now requires a court order  that would have been unthinkable before. You just have to look at these three issues to see that things are changing”.


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