The Tbilisi Bombings

georgia121010.jpgJust before dawn on Sept. 22, a small bomb exploded about 100 yards away from the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, leading to the discovery of another explosive device in a nearby cemetery.  In the following weeks, a series of mysterious nighttime bombings occurred.  On Oct 2, a bomb exploded at a bridge outside the city, then on Oct. 21 at the main train station, followed by another bombing in the middle of the night in the outskirts of the city.  Things were quiet for about a month before the biggest bombs exploded at about 2AM on Nov. 28th – striking the building of the opposition Labour Party with considerable force and the storefront of a suburban supermarket.  The bombing at the party headquarters claimed the life of one 58-year-old woman struck by shrapnel. 

Then came the arrests.  Denouncing the “terrorist attacks,” the Interior Ministry announced the arrest six people suspected of carrying out the bombings in early December – claiming that some of these individuals had initiated their bombing campaign out of the Russia-occupied Gali district of Abkhazia.  The state-loyal Inmedia television was prolific in its coverage of the bombings, and then featured the bombshell:  a televised address by President Mikheil Saakashvili in which he declared, “Evidence gathered thus far … points to a clear connection between the six suspects and an active-duty major in the Russian army,” and shared an alleged videotaped confession of Gogita Arkania, one of the arrested alleged bombers. 

If that wasn’t enough, the moral panic was amped up with the announcement of the discovery of radioactive materials (Cesium-137) in the hotel room of one of the arrested suspects, which the government says could have been used to make a dirty bomb.

No matter who is responsible for these bombings, there is little doubt that they come as a useful pretext for the embattled president, who has faced increasingly large protests by the opposition against his policies and tightening control over the media.

The Labour Party, whose headquarters were targeted in the bombings, were quick to point the blame right back at the government.  Party Secretary Iosif Shatberashvili has described the bombing as “political terror“:

Lately we have been particularly active in pursuing our struggle againstMikheil Saakashvili and his party National Movement. We have made aseries of statements that this is not a party in the standard meaning ofthe word, but a criminal gang and a terrorist organization. Apparently,this is revenge for our statements. This is not the first explosionnear a political party office in Georgia. Still, there hasn’t been such apowerful blast before. A woman died, our party’s security guard wasinjured. He was saved by an iron blind that closes the windows of hisroom. Many people of the district were hurt; some of them were taken tohospital.

It should be noted that three years ago Labour Party leader Shalva Natelashvili was charged with espionage, and forced to apply for political asylum in the United States.  Of course, in the spirit of Georgian politics, Natelashvili is quite fond himself of accusing political competitors of being KGB agents – however his party is also one of the most vocally critical of President Saakashvili and firmly against NATO membership.

There are a lot of doubts over the motivations behind the bombings and the government’s story, as analysts debate who benefits most from the political instability created by these violent acts.  Why, for example, would the Russian government want to bomb a relatively insignificant political party whose policies were actually preferential to their interests?  It strikes me as similar to the Kremlin’s excuse that an opponent of Vladimir Putin arranged for the Litvinenko and Politkovskaya only to make the Russia leader “look bad.”

These bombings did not occur in a vacuum – just three days before the Labour Party was hit, the fractious and often ineffectual opposition succeeded in organizing one of the largest anti-government rallies held this year.  In response to domestic criticism, we have seen that President Saakashvili has become addicted to Russian provocation for his political survival, and, unfortunately, Moscow seems only all too willing to indulge him with just enough antagonism.

At the same time the president is crusading against the terrorists and dirty bombers, who have allegedly come from Russia to unseat him from his besieged fortress, there are the parallel arrests of spies – some related to the bombings, but many of these arrests preceded these events.  Most Georgia watchers will recall the scandal surrounding the Russian invasion news hoax, which precisely illustrated the government’s reliance on the fear and security narrative to justify its democratic lapses.

It’s not an entirely unique occurrence – whenever you have mysterious bombs going off the middle of the night in the capital cities of political crisis countries, you can be sure that one party or another is making a desperate play.  Though unrelated in every aspect apart from methodology, I recently observed such a pattern of bombings in my work in Thailand, which I have described as “the strategy of tension.

Over the course of the past year, mysterious grenade attacks in the middle of the night in Bangkok were pinned on the Red Shirt opposition movement, and regularly serving as the Abhisit government’s pretext for the extension of the Emergency Decree.  The strategy emulated certain processes observed in Italy in the 1960s, as the state sought to “manipulate popular feeling … by creating such social disruption anduncertainty that the populace would favour the installation of astrong-arm government pledged to restore order.” (From Stuart Christie’sPortrait of a Black Terrorist, 1984).

Saakashvhili is in a much stronger position in Georgian politics these days for the first time since his Rose Revolution peak  During a recent visit to Tbilisi, Thomas de Wall commented that he can appear to ride both sides of many debates.  “More than any other politician I can think of, Saakashvili is amagician, who succeeds in being all things to all people. He is by turnsAtatürk (the state builder), George W. Bush (the neocon), ZviadGamsakhurdia (the nationalist) and Vladimir Putin (ruthlesscentralizer). He also reminds me of Bill Clinton, the naturalcommunicator, and of Boris Yeltsin, who also squared political circlesthat others never managed to,” De Wall writes.  “Consider how Misha (as everyone calls Saakashvili) manages to be thefriend of both Senator John McCain and Belarussian leader AlexanderLukashenko. He still wows Republican audiences in Washington but sets upa visa-free regime with Iran. He is the man who prides himself on hisstellar World Bank rating for “ease of doing business” in Georgia butalso presides over an economy where monopolies are firmly entrenched.

There is no evidence that suggests Saakashvili or his supporters have organized their own “strategy of tension” behind these bombings, but it seems clear that they are the ones to benefit the most from it.  Perhaps as more information comes to light, such a wild theory can be handily discarded.  I certainly hope so, because as Thailand has shown, these attempts to foment moral panic and rule by fear always end up in a very bad place.