Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Transmission

Summer In Paris, Or Jail In Tbilisi? Hmm…

Irakli Okruashvili wasn't quite ready to return to Georgia.
Irakli Okruashvili wasn't quite ready to return to Georgia.
What little suspense there might have been surrounding the current antigovernment protests in Tbilisi revolved around two grandiose ultimatums. One, that May 25 would witness an Arab-style "Day of Rage" that would culminate in the ouster of Mikheil Saakashvili. And two, that the resulting vacuum would be neatly filled by the return of one of Georgia's most notorious political figures, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who has been living in France since fleeing the country in 2007 amid a highly public breakup with Saakashvili.

Both claims seemed headline-worthy but achingly improbable. And they were.

Today, the day-of-ragers, perhaps casting a disappointed eye over the rapidly shrinking crowds of protesters, stepped back from the brink, saying the "Day of Rage" would devolve back into a day like any other. And Okruashvili -- who faced certain arrest and uncertain popularity were he to return -- said he'd given it some thought and decided the time just wasn't right.

Was Okruashvili really thinking about coming back?

As you recall, the former defense minister was once an unshakeable Saakashvili ally and a favored member of the ruling elite, who was rumored to have been given a free hand when it came to budgets and defense acquisitions. But in September 2007, he used a live television interview to level a string of stinging accusations against the president, saying Saakashvili encouraged a culture of corruption and had even sought the liquidation of one of his political opponents.

An opposition rally in Tbilisi on May 24

Okruashvili was arrested in short order and charged with his own laundry list of crimes -- extortion, money laundering, and abuse of office. After recanting his claims against Saakashvili, he was allowed to post bail and quickly fled for France, where he was eventually granted political asylum. He was convicted in absentia in 2008 and sentenced to 11 years in jail.

Since then, he has more or less patiently sat, leveling the occasional fresh claim against Saakashvili and waiting for an opportunity to return. But when you're a convicted felon and a mortal enemy of the president, travel is never as simple as flying into the Tbilisi airport. Instead, many in the Georgian capital were speculating that Okruashvili was planning to enter the country via his native South Ossetia, the breakaway territory that, together with Abkhazia, fell out of Georgian control following the August 2008 war with Russia.

Such a plan would allow Okruashvili to fly undetected into Tskhinvali and then cross without document checks or related fanfare into Georgia proper. But such a plan would also require the cooperation of Russia, the origin point for all flights into South Ossetia. (On May 19, Georgia's Rustavi-2 television reported Okruashvili had arrived in Moscow, a claim denied by his opposition Georgian Party. Photographs released by Tbilisi-based Real TV purporting to show Okruashvili and a colleague in a Moscow airport were later reported to have been doctored.)

Okruashvili has never been considered a fan of Russia's -- during Moscow's ban on Georgian wine and mineral water, he famously remarked that Russian consumers were so unsophisticated you could sell them excrement. But many in the opposition, including Nino Burjanadze, the driving force behind the current protests, have sought support from Moscow, which deeply wants to see the rambunctious Saakashvili in the unemployment line.

Is Okruashvili, biding his time in France, planning his next ultimatum?

-- Daisy Sindelar
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Joni Simonishvili from: Tbilisi
May 25, 2011 07:43
So fair and balanced, I would have expected a higher level of professionalism from Radio Free; it will not be the first nor the last time I will be disappointed.

The record of the Georgian political elite, present, former and wannabee is tasty material for investigative work - real and perceived - of the kind that a compliance department would want to know about, together with assessing broader reputation of stakeholders such as their activities might impact upon the reputation of any organisation doing business with them, or writing about them.


by: Vortuk Hortakchous from: Tbilisi, Georgia
May 25, 2011 14:42
Dear Daisy,

I've read several of your articles, and must say - as a fellow journalist - that you are quite daring in some of your reports in terms of representing what is, purportedly, facts.

Radio Free Europe is seen as a reliable source in most Western European newsrooms, but will it stay that way?

When you write that Nino Burjanadze is using the occupied territories as a rallying call to gather support, this should be put into context. How unusual is it to talk about reunification within a Georgian political context? The opposition are hawkish on the breakaway territories, it has always been that way, and it would have been the same in any other country. It's politics; a game of lies and desception.

There are other things to criticize Mrs Burjanadze for, such as her connections in the wheat industry. However, a fair and balanced reporting requires more than this. It requires to provide space for the point of view which is driving these street protests. This requires a basic respect for ordinary people, a willingness to listen to what they are saying and to try to understand their situation. How about some geographical proximity to the people you're writing about?

If you go out into the field with preconceived Cold Warish notions of what kind of political situation you're reporing about, you block yourself off from connecting to real people, which is essential in all journalism, as one of your colleagues told me during a demonstration against the rise in prison deaths in Georgia: "They are just trying to gather votes from the criminals." I mean, what kind of journalism is that?

Everyone in Georgia are aware that what Nino Burjanadze and the others protesting are saying about the president is largely a correct portrayal, but a large part support him exactly because he is an autocrat, who can force the reforms through, stand up to the Russians, while others are only kept from joining the protesters by the incompetence of Burjanadze et al.

Good luck in your further writing, and hope you are open to constructive criticism.

by: Rumwold Leigh from: London
May 26, 2011 11:08
Yes, Okruashvili is greatly tarnished. You omit however that he committed his alleged crimes whilst a member of the Saakashvili government, with the obvious knowledge and probable encouragement of that government - which whenever a Minister is dismissed, as happens frequently, asks them publicly to give back the money they know they have stolen. Two wrongs don't make a right, but the Saakaashvili regime is clearly the ultimate source of these wrongs.

The oppositiion are incompetent and untrustworthy because the only thing the public are interested in is removiing Saakashvili. They do not know the programmes of the opposition leaders, most of whom are equally tarnished, and care less because the opposition are no more legitimate than Saakashvili and his gang. And this is the root of the problem.

By any internationally accepted measure of legality, rather than convenience, the Gamsakhudia government is the legal government of Georgia. If the people of Georgia want a different sort of government, restore it and let them vote it out and bring in whoever they want - even Saakashvili, that is their democratic right. This right was taken away from them by criminal gangs, they did not rise up as a people to overthrow their elected leader.

No one will be able to run Georgia until they have legitimacy, as usurpers everywhere ultimately find. Isn't it about time journalists actually acknowledged this? Or is the guilt which motivated the gangs still the highest value of commentators on Georgia?

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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