Did Georgia blow itself up (again)?

A lot has been written lately about a string of bomb attacks that hit the capital Tbilisi last year. The targets appear to have been government buildings and other objects of public significance, including a blast near the US Embassy on the 22. of September. The bombs themselves were relatively small, and both casualties and property damage have been light, but at least one person, an elderly woman, was killed in one of the blasts. At least one bomb, placed at a railway bridge, apparently also failed to explode, and another was reportedly disarmed.

The Georgian government line has been that the Russian secret services are behind it, and have reportedly sentenced an alleged GRU officer and his local accomplice to long prison sentences in absentia. Not unsurprisingly, Georgia has also demanded that Washington and the international community take action against Russia, but has struggled to get its message through. Recently however, The Washington Times has published an article which corroborates the official Georgian story, citing access to classified US intelligence reports about alleged Russian involvement. The convoluted chain of evidence the paper presents for its allegations has to be quoted in full in order to give the reader the proper feel for it:

“The highly classified report about the Sept. 22 incident was described to The Washington Times by two U.S. officials who have read it. They said the report supports the findings of the Georgian Interior Ministry, which traced the bombing to a Russian military intelligence officer…”

In other words, there is still not much to go on.

So, how likely is it really that Russia is behind these explosions? One of the first things to have in  mind when discussing events like these is cui bono? Well, we do know that Russia and the US are in the midst of the so-called “reset” which represents the biggest rapprochement between these two powers for about a decade, and that both (but perhaps especially Russia) stand to benefit from it in major ways both economically and geopolitically in the coming years.

We also know that Georgia has a serious beef with Russia, primarily over Russian support to the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but also other issues including Georgian membership of NATO, and that Georgia is bedeviled by a number of political, social and economic problems, which have only seemed to increase in severity as the country heads for its next election cycle – and possibly economic meltdown– in about two years time. Consequently, the Georgian regime under Mikhail Saakashvili would only be glad to see the Russian-US “reset” fail, and would be more than happy for anything that could take the attention of the Georgian population away from the regime’s handling of the country’s domestic problems.

What then would be better than a little false flag operation to simultaneously hit out at the country’s main foreign enemy, and shore up additional support at home? I wish this line of argument could be relegated to the category of conspiratorial drivel, but unfortunately, previous events in Georgia compel me to take this possibility seriously.

What I am talking about is of course the Khurcha incident in 2008, which I have also written briefly about on a previous occasion. Basically, the story from the Georgian government back then was that a couple of buses carrying Georgian voters from the separatist controlled district of Gali in Abkhazia into Georgia proper had been ambushed by armed men with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers. The buses were stopped in the middle of a football field near the polling station and completely destroyed by the incoming fire, but luckily (or perhaps predictably) there were no casualties.

The Georgian government tried to pin the “attack” on Abkhazian separatists, but members of local and international organisations, including the Norwegian Helsinki Committee arriving at the scene talked to to the local population, who were convinced that their own government had been behind the attack. Further research also corroborated the story told by the locals, as it was discovered, among other things, that the rifle and rocket fire had come from the Georgian side of the de facto border with Abkhazia, and not from the Abkhazian side. The full report about the event can be read here.

It is also fitting that the individuals that Georgia blames for the Tbilisi bomb attacks were allegedly based in the Gali region. As I have written on an earlier occasion, Gali is an impoverished, mostly Georgian populated, disputed border region with serious security problems stemming from weak, or non-existent, government institutions and organised crime. In other words, this is a place where a lot of murky deals can happen and be covered up without much notice from the outside world. Georgian paramilitaries like the White Legion” and “Forest Bretheren” have a history of operating in Gali, and are known to have made use of violent tactics in the past, including bombings.

There have also been several cases of bombings elsewhere in Abkhazia over the last couple of years which have never been solved, and which the Abkhazians suspect the Georgian security services to have been responsible for. Suffice to say that in the current environment in Gali, it would be no problem for the Georgian secret services (or anyone else for that matter) to pay or otherwise induce someone to carry out acts of terror – and cover the whole thing up accordingly. This could be true even if it turned out that the culprit is indeed a former or serving GRU officer, as elements of the Russian security services have occasionally been known to go “free lance” in Chechnya and a number of other  Caucasus hot spots.

Of course, the “fact” that this terror cell was supposedly based in breakaway Abkhazia also gives the Georgian government more food for its narrative that Abkhazia is a “black hole” which constitutes a danger to regional and international peace, and deserves neither independence nor international recognition. In this way the whole affair is indeed quite ideal as seen from a Georgian propaganda standpoint.

There are also some similarities between these bombings and the Khurcha incident worth noting, most importantly the low casualty count, which might mean that whoever was responsible was trying to avoid a public outcry, which might in turn have raised calls for an independent investigation. The use of the explosive hexogen in the bombings is similar to the one allegedly used by the Russian FSB in the Moscow apartment block bombings in 1999 (an assertion which so far has not been conclusively proven), but these bombs were large in comparison , incurred  massive casualties, and created a huge amount of fear in Russian society.

This again matches poorly with the modus operandi of the Tbilisi bombings, which were relatively small, incurred minimal casualties, and received little public attention in Georgia. The question is why, if the Russian security services were indeed behind the bombings (as they allegedly were in Moscow), did they not use bigger bombs, and why, if we assume the GRU are professionals, did the bomb on the railway fail to explode, and another one was easily disarmed?

I do hope that an independent and credible future investigation will succeed in bringing additional light to at least some of these issues, but judging from past events I think that’s too much to hope for.

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About richard1983a

Richard holds a BA in Politics and Georgian language from the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, and a MA in Politics, Security and Integration from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL. He has worked for the Norwegian Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2009 and the European Centre for Minority Issues in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2010, focusing on human rights, freedom of information and minority rights in both countries. He is currently looking to publish his MA thesis on the political situation of the Armenian minority in Abkhazia.
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One Response to Did Georgia blow itself up (again)?

  1. These are fair considerations, and it is indeed very useful to recall the Khurcha incident. I agree with you that these attacks only hurt Russia’s image and that it thus seems unlikely that they are part of a grand Russian strategy. However, I think we cannot exclude stupidity and the possibility that these attacks were organised by individual Russian officers or security structures.

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