The Georgian government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, long a favorite of U.S. conservatives for championing pro-democratic “color revolutions,” is under fire for its own alleged suppression of a domestic opposition movement headed by a billionaire tycoon.
Saakashvili was lauded as a reformer after he became president in 2004, following the Rose Revolution, and he has bravely challenged Russian hegemony in the region. But he has also shown a tendency to overreach, as in the imprudent military moves that offered Russia a pretext for invading Georgia in 2008. Now, critics charge, his government has been overly zealous in combating political challengers at home.
Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
Saakashvili’s rival is a wealthy businessman named Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made a fortune in Russia before returning home to form a political party called Georgian Dream. Ivanishvili’s supporters allege a series of repressive moves by the government, including a cyberattack that has ensnared not just Georgian activists but U.S. lawyers, lobbyists and security advisers for Georgian Dream.
Allegations about the cyberattack were made to State Department officials in a Sept. 7 briefing by Tedo Japaridze, a former Georgian ambassador to Washington, and other members of a team representing the opposition group. Japaridze charged, “The government has turned the campaign into a war between the ‘state’ and the ‘enemies of the state.’ ”
The Georgian political battle has seen allegations of dirty tricks by both sides, but the cyberattack appears to be an escalation. According to Ivanishvili’s supporters, investigators found 66 malware infections on five computers operated by Ivanishvili, his family and close advisers. The viruses had spread to about 50 other machines.
The malware was cleverly designed: It could turn on the computers’ cameras and microphones, capture screen shots every 10 seconds, and record keystrokes and passwords, the State Department was told. One “screen grab” I saw was a June 7 bill to Ivanishvili from National Strategies LLC, a Washington-based security advisory firm. Another was a June 4 message to Ivanishvili from an attorney with the Washington firm Patton Boggs, which is heading his lobbying effort.
The cybercampaign evidently went beyond infecting individual computers: Japaridze’s team said that investigators discovered devices that could intercept data and insert malware into Internet traffic had been installed at several Georgian Internet service providers. The Georgian opposition group alleged that the use of these sophisticated tools “is clear proof of state security and intelligence activity in surveillance of the political opposition,” according to notes from the meeting.
This run-up to next month’s parliamentary elections has been thick with allegations of abuses on both sides. An August statement by the Council of Europe criticized the government’s seizing campaign funds as “a weapon to destroy the democratic opposition and target Georgian Dream supporters.” And Thomas Melia, the deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights, noted last week “a variety of shortcomings in recent months” but said that the United States still believes that “there is a competitive campaign under way.”