Less than a week after Georgian police took out an alleged band of Islamic insurgents, Tbilisi is dodging allegations that its forces actually killed Georgian citizens, in a bizarre case which threatens to further destabilize the country just weeks before an important election.
When reports that Georgian police and military units were involved in shootout with an armed group near the border with Dagestan, the initial fear was that Tbilisi had stumbled into another conflict with Moscow.
Once that panic subsided, however, the August 29 mission was showcased as a timely political victory for the ruling party: pro-government television stations broadcast footage of serious tÃªte-Ã -tÃªtes between the president, the minister of defense, and the minister of internal affairs.
Soldiers and police were praised for their role in freeing five Georgian captives and President Mikheil Saakashvili traveled to the region to personally assure villagers they would never be terrorized again. Saakashvili praised the government's response, claiming the operation was a sign that the Georgian military has "progressed" since the August 2008 war with Russia.
But a backlash against the police operation has grown steadily over the past week, especially after it surfaced that at least two of the men killed during the mission were not, as originally reported, Dagestani insurgents attempting to illegally hide in the Georgian forests, but Georgian citizens from Pankisi Gorge - a remote Georgian region that shares a border with Chechnya. Why, many ask, was not a single one was injured or taken alive for interrogation?
On September 3 and 4, Aslan Margoshvili, 22, and Bahaudin Kavtarashvili, 26, were buried in Duisi, a small village in Pankisi Gorge. The gorge is home to Chechen refugees who escaped to Georgia during the republic's bloody wars with Russia. In 2002, Moscow used them as a pretext to bomb the gorge, claiming Georgia was harboring Chechen rebels.
With the scandal unfolding just three weeks before pivotal parliament elections in October, opposition candidates have been quick to denounce the government's handling of the incident, blaming Saakashvili for imprudently sacrificing Georgia's neutral relations with Dagestan in order to score cheap political points before the election.
Lawrence Scott Sheets, the South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group, tells bne that the incident was anything but a victory for the government. The very appearance of a group of armed men along that border, especially during a time of heightened violence in Dagestan, created a "no win" situation for Tbilisi, he said. "The Georgian government could only lose whatever it did," Sheets said, noting that even if the government had managed to capture the men without bloodshed and arrest them - or let them cross back into Dagestan - they would be facing renewed allegations from Moscow that Georgia is a haven for rebels from the North Caucasus.
Conspiracy-loving Georgians, already primed to believe the unbelievable after months of an increasingly aggressive and derisive campaign season, have watched as the government scrambles to mold its increasingly erratic version of events to fit the growing number of allegations and denouncements the opposition is throwing at Saakashvili's feet.
In a quick session of news stories, interviews, and editorialized reports, the country's pro-opposition media have insinuated the botched police mission was alternatively a tawdry and deadly game of political theatre devised by the ruling party to win the election, a sloppy military exercise designed to lure Russia into another military campaign or, conversely, a cheap attempt to win points with the Russians.
The country's largest opposition group slammed Saakashvili for his government's "criminally irresponsible" information policy in a public statement on September 4. "Horrifying details are being reported about moral pressure exerted on relatives of those [in the operation]," it said. "It seems that President Saakashvili benefits from constantly keeping the society in the state of anticipation of peril and by doing so [aims] at suppressing citizens' free will."
With at least two Georgian citizens among the dead, Sheets noted, the situation gets even more complicated for the government - especially since the ruling party is in the middle of a tense election campaign. "Obviously what it has done is add one more factor of uncertainty to the entire situation [in the country]," he said.