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Georgia: Opposition Names Entrepreneur As Presidential Candidate

Levan Gachechiladze at a press conference today (InterPressNews) November 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's opposition coalition has named Levan Gachechiladze, a 43-year-old businessman and lawmaker, as its candidate to challenge President Mikheil Saakashvili in elections early next year.

There had been doubts that the National Council, the opposition coalition that groups 10 parties, could agree on a single candidate for the elections on January 5. But four days after Saakashvili appeared to offer a concession by moving up the date of polls originally scheduled for autumn 2008, opposition leader Koba Davitashvili announced today that the National Council had made its choice.

Gachechiladze is a wine entrepreneur and parliament deputy. Known for his colorful, laid-back style, he was a highly vocal presence during the opposition protests in Tbilisi this month. His brother, Ghia, is a popular and highly political singer.

Gachechiladze became highly visible during the protests as one of the four opposition activists who went on hunger strike to demand the government hold early parliamentary elections. When police cleared protestors from central Tbilisi on November 7, he was among those injured.

The opposition may be hoping that Gachechiladze, a Tbilisi native and avowed nationalist, will be a candidate who can appeal to a broad range of voters.

Gachechiladze once had a close relationship with Saakashvili, serving as his campaign manager when Saakashvili was running for a parliament seat in 1999. Now, he says his primary aim as a presidential candidate will be to eliminate the institution of the presidency -- one of the stated goals of the opposition.

"The National Council had several candidates,” Gachechiladze said. “One of the candidates was myself. There was not only one round; there were several rounds, and finally I won. The main goal for me will be to finish with the presidential institution in Georgia. That will be the main goal."

Today's decision comes amid continued talks between government and opposition authorities following last week's political crisis. Tensions peaked last week after riot police used rubber bullets and water cannons to forcibly disperse the opposition protests. Saakashvili then called a state of emergency and imposed harsh restrictions on the media.

Schools are back in session and a slow return to normal life can be seen in Tbilisi. But Saakashvili has yet to lift the state of emergency, despite fresh calls to do so from the United States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Heightened Tensions With Russia

Against this backdrop, officials in Tbilisi are occupied by a fresh concern. Georgian authorities today accused Russia of sending additional troops and military equipment to Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, where Moscow maintains a peacekeeping contingent.

Last month, Georgia warned it would formally request the peacekeepers withdraw from Abkhazia following reports last month that they seized and beat five Georgian police officers.

David Bakradze, Georgia's minister for conflict resolution, protested the alleged Russian move as illegal.

"At this moment, this is confirmed intelligence information,” Bakradze said. “We have the facts of illegal military buildup of Russian military forces in Abkhazia. And in particular, it concerns the fact that a certain amount of Russian heavy equipment and military personnel have entered the territory of Abkhazia from the Georgian-Russian border, which is now not controlled by the Georgian central authorities."

Valery Yevnevich, the deputy commander of the Russian army's ground forces, has dismissed Georgia's claim as a "provocation."

Earlier today, three Russian diplomats left Tbilisi for Yerevan, after Georgian authorities expelled them for supporting an alleged attempt to overthrow the Georgian government.

The order followed accusations that the three men had supported the opposition protests. Georgian officials have presented police videos and phone-tapping evidence allegedly of Georgian opposition figures like Tsotne Gamsakhurdia, the half-brother of Tavisupleba party leader Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, coordinating with the Russian diplomats about an attempted coup d'etat.

One of the diplomats, Russian Embassy official Ivan Volykin, told Georgian public television he was "friendly" with the Gamsakhurdia family but said that did not justify his forced expulsion.

Also under suspicion is Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, who has provided financial backing to the opposition and has openly called for Saakashvili's ouster. Prosecutors have requested that Patarkatsishvili report for questioning on his possible role in the alleged coup plot.

Patarkatsishvili, who is currently abroad, is the founder and co-owner of Georgia's leading private broadcaster, Imedi-TV. Imedi, whose programming is openly critical of Saakashvili's government, has been off the air since November 7, when riot police stormed its headquarters. A second private broadcaster, Kavkasia, also remains off the air.

(RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)

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