Wiretapped recordings of two phone conversations emerged on October 29 in which Georgia’s ex-President and now governor of Odessa region in Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili, discusses “defending” Tbilisi-based Rustavi 2 TV through erecting barricades, calls for “going through revolutionary scenario” and speaks about the need for “physical confrontation” during which “faces should be smashed”.
The recordings, which were leaked onto the internet, emerged amid an ongoing court battle over Rustavi 2 TV’s ownership dispute, and less than a week after the Georgian State Security Service announced about the launch of investigation into alleged “conspiracy to overthrow” the government.
One of the released recordings is between Saakashvili and head of the Rustavi 2 TV Nika Gvaramia and the other is between the the ex-president and opposition UNM party leader Giga Bokeria.
Gvaramia and Bokeria have confirmed authenticity of the recordings.
Gvaramia said that he did not take Saakashvili’s advice and Bokeria said that he was discussing how to resist the government’s illegal attempts to “forcibly take over” Rustavi 2 TV. Both Gvaramia and Bokeria said that leaked recordings confirm that the government is carrying out “mass illegal” surveillance.
Reacting to the leaked recordings, Saakashvili, who has not denied the authenticity of the conversations, said that “no one should be surprised” that he was calling for a struggle to defend media freedom in Georgia.
In the recording, involving conversation between Saakashvili and Gvaramia, which apparently took place tentatively on October 19, the ex-president tells Rustavi 2 TV head that the judge, adjudicating broadcaster’s ownership dispute, would “definitely” rule against Rustavi 2 and would also order an immediate enforcement of change of ownership.
When asked by Gvaramia how he foresees things would develop after that order, Saakashvili responds: “You should go through revolutionary scenario.”
“You should call on the people to defend [Rustavi 2 TV]… you should erect barricades, literally barricade [Rustavi 2 TV headquarters], get supplies of water etc. and there should be a standoff lasting for weeks,” said Saakashvili.
“You should put large barricades; you should start preparing this right now, bring metal [barriers] and turn it into a fortress… There should be several lines of defense, tents – that’s the only way, there is no other way… Put physical fortifications… several barriers, many metal [barriers] – you should erect it promptly, you should start putting them right now. The next [step] will involve seizure [of Rustavi 2 TV] on [October] 22, you should not let this seizure happen. We can always gather 1,000-1,500 men to reinforce [and defend Rustavi 2 TV HQ]; if you manage to stand firmly for a week, then it will get very complicated for them [authorities],” Saakashvili said.
Gvaramia told Saakashvili that if this scenario unfolds, the television station will face financial problems. But Saakashvili responded: “Who cares about revenues – that’s revolution, war… We are talking about a week or so.”
“So you think there will be such a breakthrough in two weeks?” Gvaramia asked Saakashvili, who responded: “Definitely.”
“Get boeviks [a Russian term for fighters], who will defend [apparently referring to defense of Rustavi 2 TV HQ], because eventually it will definitely end up with shooting,” Saakashvili told Gvaramia.
In another leaked recording, in which Saakashvili speaks with Giga Bokeria, the ex-president briefly recounts his conversation with Gvaramia, saying that he told Rustavi 2 TV head about the need of “barricading” broadcaster’s headquarters.
“He [Gvaramia] has to build a fortress with defense, fortifications, boeviks so that not to let anyone being able to enter there without firing a shot,” Saakashvili told Bokeria.
After Bokeria told Saakashvili that Gvaramia “has no boeviks”, Saakashvili said “the party” should provide. Bokeria told the ex-president that they were getting ready for that and also said that the location of Rustavi 2 TV headquarters was not the best place for erecting “metal” barriers for barricades. But Saakashvili insists that it’s “possible to build.”
“You should stand firmly for a week,” Saakashvili said.
Then Saakashvili asked Bokeria about international reaction to the developments over Rustavi 2 TV ownership dispute by saying: “What are these idiot foreigners doing?”
Bokeria responded that the U.S. Department of State was going to make a statement.
When Bokeria asked Saakashvili what was his impression about Gvaramia’s “mood”, the governor of Odessa region responded that Gvaramia told him that Rustavi 2 TV “journalists are confused, but he has to encourage them.”
“I told him: ‘Nika, shooting may erupt and you should be ready for that’,” Saakashvili said.
“Physical confrontation is needed now, we should show that we are capable of that – we are worth nothing if we are not. We won’t be able to draw attention to us through other means,” Saakashvili said.
“Faces should be smashed and if shots are fired, let them shoot,” Saakashvili added.
Later on Thursday night, the State Security Service said that it’s official would make a statement at 11am Tbilisi time on Friday; it did not specify topic of the planned statement, but it appears to be related with the leaked recordings.
Saakashvili’s Statement Following Leaked Recordings
Saakashvili reacted to leaked recordings with posting a written statement on his Facebook page, saying: “Defending the last fortress of free speech amounts to struggle for existence of Georgia.”
“No one should be surprised that I have called for this struggle on everyone who has force and ability for that. If we want Georgia to have the future, we should not allow suppression of freedom of speech through Putin’s scenario. If there is a need for physical defense of the freedom, we should be ready for that too. When the democracy is being killed, it needs physical defense – that’s what the history of European democracy teaches us. That’s how the Ukrainian people defended through peaceful resistance its freedom. We should be ready for Ivanishvili to act like Yanukovych,” Saakashvili wrote and added, referring to Ivanishvili, that “this provincial dictator will not even refrain from shooting own people.”
“But if we defend our dignity and if we don’t give up our freedom, he [Ivanishvili] will share the fate of Yanukovych. We should not in any way break into anywhere and overthrow anyone, but we should be ready if we have to defend ourselves from the violent government; we should not let them kill free speech with use of brutal force,” Saakashvili said.
Gvaramia’s Statement on Leaked Recordings
After the recordings were leaked, head of the Rustavi 2 TV, Nika Gvaramia, convened a press conference, which was aired live by the Rustavi 2 TV’s main news program at 9pm local Tbilisi time, and said that although Saakashvili is his “friend”, he did not share his advices about barricading the broadcaster’s headquarters.
Gvaramia said these recordings confirm that the government is carrying out “illegal eavesdropping” and there is “no free space” left in the country. The only legal ground for monitoring his phone calls, he said, can be a criminal investigation, which was launched by the State Security Service in connection to alleged coup plotting. He, however, pointed out that the wiretapped phone conversation, which was leaked and which took place tentetivley on October 19, pre-dates the launch of that criminal investigation, which was opened on October 24.
Gvaramia also said that the leaked recording also confirms his allegations about the government blackmailing him. Gvaramia said on October 21 he received a threat from the government to leak a video of his personal life and recordings of his phone conversations with Saakashvili if he refuses to “step aside” from the television station.
“Mikheil Saakashvili is my friend. His position over various issues is interesting for me, but it does not mean that we have the same positions on every issue,” said Gvaramia, who held senior government posts when Saakashvili was the President.
“Yes, I confirm that Mikheil Saakashvili believes we should be defending freedom of speech with use of methods he is speaking about [in the recording],” Gvaramia said, adding the fact that there are no barricades at the Rustavi 2 TV headquarters about ten days after that phone conversation indicates that he had not shared Saakashvili’s position.
“Saakashvili thinks that we should resist even if shots are fired at us – that’s the issue of his political taste and his political responsibility,” Gvaramia said.
He said that Rustavi 2 TV does not serve the purpose of “bringing any of the political party into power, especially through methods, which has nothing to do with media.”
“Rustavi 2 TV is a media outlet, we listened to advices… but we act as we deem it appropriate. Our decision is the following: we will defend the television company to the end,” Gvaramia said and added addressing the authorities: “You will fail to seize Rustavi 2 TV; full stop.”
Bokeria’s Statement on Leaked Recordings
UNM’s foreign secretary Giga Bokeria, who was secretary of the National Security Council when Saakashvili was the President, said that the leaked recordings confirm the government is carrying out “massive illegal surveillance.”
“The position voiced in the conversation is what we are speaking publicly as well,” Bokeria told journalists. “An attempt to suppress Rustavi 2 TV by the Ivanishvili regime is a red line for us.”
“We are standing at the Rustavi 2 TV [headquarters] in order not to allow suppressing of main source of information in the country. We understand very well that Ivanishvili has decided to clear the field ahead of the elections because he knows that he will fail to maintain power even in the condition of minimal democratic elections… Our purpose is to keep the processes within the constitutional framework and kick out Ivanishvili’s regime from the country in 2016 elections, but it won’t happen at the expense of doing nothing and not resisting attempts to forcibly take over Rustavi 2 TV,” Bokeria said.
Rustavi 2 TV Newsroom’s Statement
Rustavi 2 TV’s newsroom released the statement on behalf of its journalists, who say that they “strongly distance ourselves from any type of violent scenario of developments.”
“Our editorial policy is not related to any of the political party’s goals; our goal is to perform journalistic duties, involving impartial coverage of developments in the country. Any kind of violent action, no matter by whom, is strongly unacceptable for us. The authorities will bear full responsibility if violent actions are not prevented. We also demand from the authorities to explain origins, legality of obtaining these recordings and how they emerged in Ukrainian online space. We also demand explanation about why these recordings were not made public immediately after being obtained because they purportedly contain information about possible risk to lives of citizens of this country. We declare that we will maintain independent editorial policy and we would like to remind everyone that microphones and cameras are the only means at our disposal to defend freedom of speech and our freedom. We call on the broadcasting company’s leadership not to allow entry of unauthorized persons, including of our supporters, on the territory of the TV company,” reads the statement.