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Georgia: President Silent, While Key Opposition Party Takes Shape

A full-blown political crisis is developing in Georgia after police detained former defense minister-turned-opposition leader Irakli Okruashvili. The arrest came just days after Okruashvili made sensational allegations concerning President Mikheil Saakashvili's involvement in unconstitutional activity. Shortly before being taken into custody, Okruashvili gave a wide-ranging interview to EurasiaNet. In that interview, Okruashvili outlined his priorities for change and elaborated on his claims and critiques -- ranging from murder conspiracy to authoritarianism -- made against Saakashvili and his administration.

According to Okruashvili's spokesperson, Tamar Ukhadze, the former defense minister was taken into custody around 8:15 pm at the headquarters of his newly announced political party, the Movement for a United Georgia. Police did not present a warrant at the time of Okruashvili's arrest, according to witnesses. No information was immediately available on where Okruashvili was taken. According to a report aired on the pro-administration Rustavi-2 television channel, state prosecutors intended to bring corruption, money-laundering and abuse of power charges against Okruashvili.

Saakashvili is currently in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, and has not responded to the allegations made against him. [For additional information, see related EurasiaNet story]. A spokesperson for his office had no information about plans for a statement.

Leaders of other opposition parties roundly denounced Okruashvili’s arrest, and announced that a mass rally had been scheduled for 2 pm on September 28. “From this day on, Saakshvili is a terrorist,” said Goga Khaindrava, a former state minister and now a fellow at the Equity Institute in Tbilisi. Koba Davitashvili, head of the opposition People’s Party, said Saakashvili was no longer fit to be president. “By arresting Okruashvili, President Saakashvili has actually confirmed all those allegations voiced by Okruashvili,” Davitashvili said.

Keti Makharashvili, an MP, said the events of the past few days had ominous implications for freedom of expression in Georgia. “This is not about Irakli Okruashvili. It’s about the development of democracy in Georgia,” Makharashvili said. She described the detention as politically motivated, adding that Okruashvili’s bodyguards and drivers were also detained. “He [Saakashvili] can’t tolerate a real opposition.”

Deputy General Prosecutor Nika Gvaramia announced that authorities had been investigating Okruashvili’s activities for over a year, going on to allege that he had siphoned off “millions” from the Defense Ministry budget. At least six Okruashvili supporters were arrested outside party headquarters during the evening of September 27, Rustavi-2 reported. According to Makharashvili, Okruashvili was being held in the Interior Ministry’s pre-detention center and had been given access to counsel.

Before the arrest, Okruashvili's newly announced Movement for a United Georgia was swinging into action. The party had set November 15 as the date for its founding congress, and reportedly had begun work to set up a presence outside of Tbilisi. Party leaders were also considering whether or not to affiliate with other opposition groups. It was not immediately clear how Okruashvili's arrest would impact the party's planning.

The movement's policy focus is broad. In a discussion with EurasiaNet and another reporter, Okruashvili emphasized reducing the power of Georgia's executive branch of government, judiciary reform and paying attention to the government's "administrative functions," which, he claimed, along with Georgia's electoral system, are designed to discourage political pluralism.

Okruashvili also focused attention on reducing unemployment, calling for investment in and long-term planning for the country's ailing agricultural sector. Okruashvili maintained that the government had not devoted adequate attention to job creation and rural development, and was preoccupied with the real estate market. Housing and land prices in Tbilisi and Batumi have been skyrocketing of late. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].

"Since the Rose Revolution, our main achievement was . . . that we restored the image of the government," he said. "During the last two years, that image was destroyed. People do not believe in the fairness of the government as they believed, for instance, in 2004 or 2005."

In a complaint raised previously by other opposition members, Okruashvili cited the failure to promote political diversity as key to this trend. "[A]ll the people who are having . . . different views are considered enemies," he argued. "[The president's] argument is that these people are trying to interrupt me [from] unit[ing] the country."

Okruashvili -- who has held the portfolios for economic development, defense and internal affairs, as well as acting as general prosecutor -- pointed to the recent high-profile arrests of officials who are his friends or associates as an illustration of this problem. The government has described the arrests as part of its ongoing crackdown against corruption. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Okruashvili claimed that he discussed his concerns with Saakashvili about the use of such tactics "many times," but that the president allegedly justified all actions as necessary to promote unity in the drive to take back Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The president's office has not responded to Okruashvili's statement, or his portrayal of events.

The issue of the "frozen conflicts" stood to figure prominently in the new party's program. Okruashvili recounted that failure to make progress in restoring control over breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia was what prompted his decision to resign from office in late 2006. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The UN response to a Georgian operation that summer against a militia group in the Kodori Gorge, a section of Abkhazia still controlled by Georgia, proved the breaking point. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

"I'm not saying that one day we should declare war on Russia or on Abkhazia or things like that, but we haven't [taken] any single, real steps . . . all the time he [Saakashvili] was afraid to do something," he said. "[W]hen finally I realized that nothing would happen in that direction, I decided to leave."

The president's decision to pass on a "small-scale operation" to take back South Ossetia by the middle of 2006 contributed to that frustration, he told the Imedi television channel. Okruashvili has denied that his position on the two conflicts prompted his removal from the defense ministry, however.

Nonetheless, the frustration lingers on. The former defense minister has also taken aim at Tbilisi's support for Dmitri Sanakoyev, a onetime Ossetian separatist who is now the administration head of Georgian-controlled South Ossetia. Sanakoyev's emergence in late 2006, Okruashvili told EurasiaNet, was "the idea of [Interior Minister Vano] Merabishvili." The Georgian government, Okruashvili alleged, paid "$1.5 million" for Sanakoyev's gambling debts and "from an alcohol business." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The Interior Ministry could not be reached for comment.

While the Movement for a United Georgia sketched its party program and mulled potential alliances, public attention remained riveted on two accusations raised by the former defense minister. Prime among them is the allegation that President Saakashvili requested Okruashvili, who was at the time serving as defense minister, to "get rid of" Badri Patarkatsishvili, owner of Imedi Media Holding, a co-owner of Imedi Television with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The station is often deemed sympathetic to the opposition.

In a September 25 interview with Imedi, Okruashvili recounted that he passed on information about the alleged plan to Zaza Gogava, then head of the Special Forces Brigade, now chief of staff, and to an unnamed man in Turkey. Both men he described as in close contact "with the Americans."

Okruashvili told EurasiaNet that while he has no firsthand knowledge that the United States was informed about the president's alleged plans, "I did my best to send a message to them." The Georgian leader later dropped the topic, he said, prompting him to believe that the information may have been delivered to the United States. The US Embassy in Tbilisi had no comment in response to the allegation.

Names of other individuals supposedly targeted for "liquidation" have not been given. To EurasiaNet, Okruashvili said that his statement that "killers" (k'atsis mk'vlelebi) remain in the government was made "regarding the president

Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNet's Caucasus news editor, based in Tbilisi. Molly Corso is a freelance reporter also based in Tbilisi.

Georgia: President Silent, While Key Opposition Party Takes Shape

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