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Georgia: Does Former Minister's Arrest Mark A Political Watershed?

  • Liz Fuller --> Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili (file photo) (InterPressNews) October 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The September 27 arrest of former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili -- just 48 hours after he publicly accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of corruption, protectionism, and proposing the liquidation of a political opponent -- was hardly surprising. But the Georgian authorities could not have anticipated that Okruashvili's detention would serve as a catalyst for large-scale antigovernment protests.

A trained lawyer, Okruashvili, 34, is a longtime close associate of Saakashvili, having served as deputy justice minister in 2000-01 when Saakashvili headed that ministry. He was long considered one of the most capable and versatile members of the Georgian leadership, having served since 2004 as a regional governor, prosecutor-general, interior minister, and then from December 2004 as defense minister.

Saakashvili explained Okruashvili's dismissal in November 2006 from that latter post and his appointment as economy minister on the grounds that Georgia's economy "is now our battle front," and that Okruashvili's managerial and organizational talents would be best deployed there. Okruashvili, however, saw things differently and stepped down just days after being named economy minister, affirming that his heart was with the armed forces.

Rumors that Okruashvili planned to found his own political party in opposition to Saakashvili, and possibly even run against the incumbent president in the presidential ballot theoretically due in 2009, have been circulating in Tbilisi for six months but increased in intensity in recent weeks. Okruashvili returned to Tbilisi from abroad last month, as unsubstantiated reports began appearing in the Georgian press that the prosecutor-general had opened an investigation into his activities as defense minister, and despite the arrest on corruption charges of two of his close associates, former Poti Mayor David Kantaria in late August, and former Shida Kartli Governor Mikheil Kareli on September 23.

Critical Of Saakashvili

Speaking at a press conference on September 25, and then in a live interview on the independent Imedi television channel later that day, Okruashvili accused President Saakashvili of adopting the mantle of a crusader against corruption and injustice while selectively permitting members of his entourage and close family to amass huge fortunes illegally. "Saakashvili's ruling style...has turned immorality, injustice, oppression, reprisals, the demolition of homes and churches, and...murder...into norms of everyday life," he said.

"Saakashvili's ruling style...has turned immorality, injustice, oppression, reprisals, the demolition of homes and churches, and...murder...into norms of everyday life." -- Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili

Okruashvili claimed that three years ago, as interior minister, he arrested Saakashvili's uncle for accepting a $200,000 bribe, but at Saakashvili's request subsequently released him. Okruashvili criticized Saakashvili for failing in early 2006 to give the green light for a military operation that would have brought back under Tbilisi's control the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.

Okruashvili further claimed that Saakashvili raised the possibility of assassinating oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili in a car bombing, and said he knows for certain that former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, whose body was found in a rented apartment in Tbilisi in February 2005, was killed elsewhere. Okruashvili accused Saakashvili of resenting, and trying to sow dissent within, the Georgian Orthodox Church, and of rewriting Georgian history to understate everything achieved before his advent to power. Saakashvili dismissed all those accusations on September 29 as lies.

New Opposition Movement

But while members of Saakashvili's United National Movement shrugged off Okruashvili's allegations as "utter nonsense [and] hysterical and groundless slander," and as too "absurd" to merit a response, Georgian citizens of all ages and walks of life reportedly flocked on September 26 to sign up as members of his new opposition movement For a United Georgia. And on September 28, the day after his arrest, up to 10,000 people congregated in Tbilisi -- the largest manifestation of popular protest since the November 2003 Rose Revolution.

But as the English-language daily "Messenger" noted in an analysis on October 1, the majority of those present were there not simply to support Okruashvili, but to vent their anger and frustration with Saakashvili's leadership, chanting "Misha fandarast!" ("Farewell, Misha!" an allusion to the "Kokoity fandarast!" campaign launched by the Georgian authorities earlier this year as part of their efforts to topple the de facto president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia).

This is not to say that Okruashvili is not popular: on the contrary, opinion polls have consistently suggested that he is one of the most popular politicians in Georgia. For example, "The Georgian Times" on September 27 ranked Okruashvili second after Saakashvili, while "Mteli kvira" on October 1 claimed that 12 percent of respondents it questioned said they would vote for Okruashvili if presidential elections were held now, as compared to 10.8 percent support for Saakashvili. But according to the "Messenger," although popular, Okruashvili "is not trusted." To that extent, other opposition politicians may well simply seek to capitalize on the anger his arrest has triggered.

Participants in the September 28 demonstrations put forward a number of demands, including Saakashvili's resignation and the holding of parliamentary elections in April 2008 as required by the constitution, rather than in the fall of that year as decreed by Saakashvili, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported on October 1.

Ten opposition parties from across the political spectrum, including the People's Party, the Labor party, the Republican party, the Conservative party, Georgia's Way, Tavisupleba, Chven Tviton (We Ourselves), and Okruashvili's For a United Georgia have aligned in a National Council that is headed by a five-person Emergency Committee whose members include former Minister for Conflict Resolution Goga Khaindrava and parliamentarians Levan Gachechiladze (New Conservatives/New Rightists) and Koka Guntsadze, who defected from the New Rightists and is now a leading member of Okruashvili's party. The council reportedly plans to mobilize people across the country under the slogan "Georgia Without Saakashvili," to lobby for Saakashvili's resignation and the abolition of the presidency, and to stage a major demonstration on November 2.

Meanwhile, activists of Okruashvili's own fledgling party are collecting signatures in support of a demand for his release from the two-month pretrial detention to which the Tbilisi Municipal Court sentenced him on September 29. The party plans to unveil its program in mid-November.

No Concrete Evidence

Still unclear is what Okruashvili himself hoped to achieve by going public last week with shocking and sensational allegations against Saakashvili for which he failed to provide any concrete evidence. Knowing Saakashvili as closely as he does, he must surely have anticipated swift retribution -- indeed the timing of his allegations must have come as a godsend to the Georgian authorities in that it served to eclipse completely the fallout from the September 20 shooting, reportedly in cold blood, by Georgian spetsnaz troops of two Russian citizens serving on contract as instructors to the Abkhaz armed forces.

If Okruashvili was gambling on Saakashvili not moving immediately to arrest him, then he is at the very least guilty of a major strategic error of judgment that casts doubt on his political skills. And as analyst Ramaz Saqvarelidze pointed out in a September 29 interview with the daily "Rezonansi," Okruashvili would have to have been "very naive" to anticipate the likelihood of arrest, and he is not a man who gives that impression.

Alternatively, Okruashvili may have anticipated, and possibly even sought to provoke, his arrest on the assumption that popular dissatisfaction with Saakashvili and his government has reached such a pitch that, sooner or later, the opposition will storm the jail where he is being held and release him, as hundreds of exultant Kyrgyz did former Bishkek Mayor Feliks Kulov after the March 2005 ouster of President Askar Akaev. But the timeframe agreed by the National Council may militate against that outcome: by announcing in advance a planned showdown in four weeks' time, the united opposition risks reprisals, including the detention of its leading members, prior to that date.

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