A Car Bomb Rattles Georgians As Election Nears

The government in Tbilisi says all is well with democracy. But many Georgians aren’t so sure.


The booming of the drums, amplified by two loudspeakers, rolled over thousands of heads, as if to bolster the spirits of an army before battle. People of all ages hurried down Tbilisi’s main street, Rustaveli Avenue, towards Rose Revolution square. Fathers with children sitting on their shoulders, older men in traditional Georgian hats, women of all ages dressed up in fancy summer blouses, all chanting: “Gamardzhob, Nationals!” This Wednesday, the 40,000-strong crowd was wishing victory for the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s main opposition party.

Some people looked dehydrated after hours of traveling by bus from the country’s remote provinces to the capital. It was matter of pride for the opposition to come out in support for their party in protest of a violent attack on one of its leaders, parliament member Givi Targamadze. The night before, on October 4, the rear of Targamadze’s Jeep exploded not far from the party’s headquarters, two blocks from the capital’s main Freedom Square. At least four pedestrians were injured, and an ambulance took away an unconscious man. Targamadze himself, who was in the car, was left shocked and deafened, but otherwise unharmed.

“Highest democratic standards to be upheld following free and fair electoral campaign,” declared a Georgian government press release on Friday. But the election campaign has been marred by violence and popular anxiety. Opposition candidates have been severely beaten and shot at. Just in case, a few ambulances parked near Freedom Square during Wednesday’s rally. The frequent police and ambulance sirens reminded Georgians of 2008, the painful year when Georgia fought a brief war with Russia. “I’m stressed and I’m always worried that another revolution might be followed by more killings, by another war with Russia,” said Tomara Bakradze, a middle-aged teacher. She sat on a bench on Rustaveli Avenue during the rally, preferring to watch the opposition march from a distance. “Georgia has just started recovering. There are more tourists than residents, any unrest would scare them away,” she said.

That morning, two university students, siblings Eka and Gia Georgadze, took a bus from the nearby city of Gori to take part in the rally — and to check out the Tbilisi club scene. Both recalled Russian tanks on the streets of their city in August 2008. Their terrified parents packed up their small Lada and took them to the mountains, away from the fighting.

“Violence is back in our country,” said Gia. “The car bombing is the first ever terrorist attack in our capital, at least in my life.” The young voters were also concerned that both the UNM and Georgian Dream, the ruling party, have been tapping each other’s phone conversations and leaking discrediting data on the internet. “I want to know who plotted the car bombing, who leaks gossips on dubious websites,” said Eka. “I don’t want to see any more violence or any more rotten KGB-style recordings. We don’t need revolutions and we don’t want wars. Georgia can choose its leaders through elections.”

The Georgia Dream party, which has been in power since 2012, now faces criticism for jailing members of the opposition (mostly from the entourage of former President Mikheil Saakashvili), for slowing economic growth, not fulfilling their promises, and for the shadowy reputation of its billionaire leader, Bedzina Ivanishvili.

The targeting of Targamadze may have something to do with his reputation across the post-Soviet world as a sort of professional revolutionary. In 2003, he supported Georgia’s Rose Revolution, when the UNM first came to power. Next he took part in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Unsurprisingly, given its antipathy to this wave of “color revolutions,” the Kremlin has blamed Targamadze for meeting with Russian opposition leaders and even plotting to depose Vladimir Putin.

It’s no wonder UNM leaders suspect a dark Russian influence behind the failed assassination attempt. “We believe that the Georgian state security services are infiltrated with former KGB officers, who still have strong ties with Moscow. [They] planted the explosives in our friend’s car,” said Georgi Kandelaki, a UNM leader and member of parliament. “See, we don’t need a revolution this time. We’re relying on a younger generation in our party, and aim to win in the most transparent and democratic way possible — unlike the terrified ruling party,” he said.

The Georgian authorities had a different view. In a political talk show on the country’s popular Rustavi-2 television channel, a member of the ruling party, Gedevan Popkhadze, insisted that the attack had actually been plotted and executed by the opposition itself in a bid to discredit the government.

Despite the excitement of the bombing and the rally, 57 percent of the electorate remains undecided. “This is the most unpredictable election ever, the first time in Georgian history when a ruling party and an opposition party have almost the same popularity,” said Georgi Gogia, a Georgia specialist for Human Rights Watch. “We’re concerned about potential violence.” The unpredictability is only heightened by the question of whether ex-president Saakashvili would return to Tbilisi after the election. Last week Saakashvili — who is wanted by Georgian police on corruption and abuse of power charges that many consider politically motivated — declared that his return would be a matter of days. For Georgians who yearn for a quiet, peaceful election, the prospect may be an unsettling one.

In the photo, supporters of the United National Movement rally on October 5 in Tbilisi.

Photo credit: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images

Anna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award. Twitter: @annanemtsova