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Georgian Security Service accuses Georgian Legion and others of plotting coup

18 September 2023
Office of the State Security of Georgia, Tbilisi. Photo: Shota Kincha/OC Media.

Georgia’s State Security Service (SSG) has claimed to be investigating an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government by Ukraine’s deputy director of counterintelligence, the Georgian Legion, and a former bodyguard of Mikheil Saakashvili.

The SSG claimed that ‘certain groups in and outside Georgia’ were conspiring to violently topple the government in October–December through public uproar generated by accusing the government of being pro-Russian.

The SSG did not provide evidence to support their claims.

This is at least the seventh time since Georgian Dream came to power in 2012 that officials have claimed that a coup was being plotted against the government. Several civil society figures and opposition groups suggested the announcement was an attempt to distract the public from a scandal surrounding the sanctioning of a former chief prosecutor by the US for his alleged connections to Russia.

In their press briefing on Monday, the SSG said the alleged conspirators expected the EU to once again deny Georgia candidate status later this year, which ‘through their information networks at their disposal and an artificially tagged label of “pro-Russia” on the government — will create a fertile ground for public uproar and further unrest’.

A peaceful protest in downtown Tbilisi on 24 June 2022, the day the EU denied Georgia membership candidacy. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media

The SSG said the conspirators planned to create a ‘city of tents’ — erecting ‘barricades’ and blocking strategic state buildings to incite conflict, presumably in Tbilisi.  

‘Specifically, it has been established that the organisers are considering implementing a scenario similar to “Euromaidan” that occurred in 2014 in Ukraine’, they said.

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The SSG further claimed the conspiracy included a plan to commit a terrorist act —  detonating a bomb in one of the tents during the street protests. 

‘This, as per their criminal plan, should lead to fatalities among peaceful protesters and law enforcement officers. In the event of a terrorist act, destructive forces hope for an uncontrolled exchange of fire among law enforcement officers and protesters,  creating a fertile environment for future civil conflict’, they said.

The SSG named Ukraine’s Deputy Director of Counterintelligence, Giorgi Lortkipanidze, Mikheil Baturini, a former member of President Mikhail Saakashvili’s security detail, and Mamuka Mamulashvili, the commander of the Georgian Legion as leaders of the conspiracy. The Georgian Legion is a volunteer unit primarily made up of Georgians fighting against the Russian army in Ukraine.

[Read more on Georgian Legion here: Georgian Government threatens to strip Ukraine fighters of citizenship

According to the SSG, the coup was being prepared ‘in coordination with and with financial support from foreign countries.’

The SSG further alleged that a ‘sizable’ group of Georgian combatants in Ukraine and unidentified ‘youngsters’ were being trained ‘near the Poland–Ukraine state border’ for a ‘revolutionary scenario’. 

They claimed this was part of a plan devised by Giorgi Lortkipanidze and Canvas (an apparent reference to the Belgrade-headquartered Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies) and Otpor, a group famed for their role in toppling the government of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia in 2000.

OC Media has reached out to Canvas for a comment; Otpor ceased to exist in 2004. 

Lortkipanidze is a former deputy interior minister of Georgia who is wanted by Georgian authorities for alleged abuse of office during the dispersal of anti-government protests in Tbilisi in May 2011. He is also alleged to have assisted former president Mikheil Saakashvili in sneaking into Georgia from Ukraine ten years later.

‘Saving Private Partskhaladze’

The SGG’s assertions were refuted by both Giorgi Lortkipanidze, through his lawyer, Mikheil Baturini, and Mamuka Mamulashvili, while key Georgian opposition groups denounced Monday’s statement as an attempt to divert attention from the government’s current problems.

The SSG’s announcement came just days after the US sanctioned Georgia’s former Chief Prosecutor, Otar Partskhaladze, for his alleged ties to the Russian FSB. The SSG said on 15 September that they were ‘studying’ these allegations.

Levan Khabeishvili, chair of the United National Movement (UNM), the largest opposition party, characterised the SSG’s statement as ‘saving private Partskhaladze’. 

He said the statement ‘confirms the existence of Russian influence in [Georgia’s] state bodies’. 

On Monday evening, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili demanded a ‘timely’ investigation into Partskhaladze.

For years, Grigol Liluashvili worked for the Ivanishvili-founded Kartu group before entering public service in 2016 and becoming head of the SSG three years later. Image: SSG

Georgia’s State Security Service, which was split from the Interior Ministry under the rule of Georgian Dream party to strengthen the institutional independence of security services, have recently been embroiled in a series of controversies that have potentially harmed their public reputation. 

[Also read on OC Media: Kidnap, smuggling, and rigged elections: 5 allegations by Georgia’s former security chief]  

Recent scandals include allegations that SSG was involved in kidnapping Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarili from Tbilisi in 2017 and organising an attack on comedian and co-founder of independent TV channel Formula, Misha Mshviladze this summer.

A leak of internal SSG files in September 2021 also led to public outcry, revealing widespread illegal surveillance of civil society and foreign diplomats in Georgia.

The leak also appeared to reveal that the SSG had been monitoring child abuse by clergy from the Georgian Orthodox Church without intervening. No investigation of the abuse followed.

A history of claimed coups

Georgian law enforcement agencies, including the SSG, have frequently claimed to be investigating attempted coups since 2014. Such announcements, as with Monday’s allegations, have not been backed by evidence. Neither have the authorities announced the resolution of any criminal cases pertaining to the claims. 

Unsubstantiated claims of attempted coups were also frequent during the previous government, under the UNM (2004–2012). 

The authorities under Georgian Dream made the first declaration of alleged plans for a ‘Euromaidan’ in Georgia in 2014. Then-Interior Minister Aleksandre Chikaidze claimed in April that year that the UNM were gathering tents and tyres to burn during anti-government rallies in order to forcefully overthrow the government. Chikaidze made the same claim later that year. 

In October 2015, the SSG announced a probe into an alleged planned coup after a discussion reportedly involving Mikheil Saakashvili, then-governor of Ukraine’s Odesa Oblast, was published online. The SSG later questioned Nika Gvaramia and Giga Bokeria, two of Saakashvili’s close confidants, who were the former president’s interlocutors in that call. 

The following year, in September 2016, the SSG said they were investigating a planned coup within hours after another conversation, allegedly between President Saakashvili and several leaders of his party, was published on YouTube

Three years later, shortly after mass anti-government protests in June 2019 that forced then Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze to resign, the Prosecutor’s Office announced an investigation into a coup they claimed would have occurred if protesters had successfully stormed the Parliament in Tbilisi. 

The following year, the SSG announced another investigation into an alleged coup. The agency claimed that ‘certain individuals […] were planning to overthrow the government through violence in the event of unfavourable results in the [parliamentary] elections’. The SSG started the probe a week after ex-Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, then Georgian Dream’s Executive Secretary, claimed the UNM were planning an armed coup employing former police officers and military personnel.

While Kobakhidze identified UNM chair Nika Melia, and party founder Mikheil Saakashvili among the conspirators, like in previous cases, the authorities never updated the public about the results of their investigation.  

A year later, in November 2021, the SSG issued a public warning against ‘frequent appeals for revolution and coups’ while stating it was a crime punishable by up to three years in prison under Article 317 of the Criminal Code. 

Several government critics defied the warning they deemed was meant to intimidate them with Facebook posts calling for a ‘revolution’.

Also in November 2021, amidst street protests demanding the release of Saakashvili, the SSG claimed that he and the UNM were ‘considering assassinating one of the opposition leaders’ in order to incite civil turmoil and a coup.

Supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili outside the State Security Service (SSG) office in Tbilisi, 11 November 2021. Photo: Shota Kincha/OC Media

Last year, just months before suffering an attack he alleged was organised by the SSG, the SSG questioned TV Formula’s Misha Mshviladze within that investigation. 

Mshviladze was questioned after suggesting on Facebook that anti-government protesters should ‘ransack’ the office of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili if he refused to resign.