Georgian Ex-Minister in Public Climbdown

Former defence minister retracts his allegations against President Saakashvili and is released on bail.

Georgian Ex-Minister in Public Climbdown

Former defence minister retracts his allegations against President Saakashvili and is released on bail.

The political situation in Georgia took another extraordinary twist this week when former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili, who had dramatically denounced his former boss President Mikheil Saakashvili two weeks before, publicly repudiated his own allegations.

On October 8, twelve days after the ex-minister was arrested, the Georgian prosecutor general’s office released a videotape of Okruashvili in which he was shown pleading guilty to the charges of extortion and abuse of office made against him, and one by one retracting all the accusations he had levelled against the president.

The former defence minister has now been freed on bail and is said to be leaving politics, while the government’s ire is now directed against another powerful figure, media magnate Badri Patarkatsishvili.

Okruashvili, formerly one of Saakashvili’s closest allies, was arrested two days after he announced the creation of a new opposition party and accused the president of a whole series of crimes, including tolerating corruption and trying to have Patarkatsishvili, a one-timed partner of exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, murdered (see CRS 412 and 413.)

On the prosecution’s tape, which his supporters say was made under duress, the former minister said he made the earlier allegations “in order to win political dividends”, and that Patarkatsishvili had been involved in his plans.

“I had periodic meetings with Patarkatsishvili both in Tbilisi and abroad, and the statement about the [president] planning to kill him was intended for him to win political dividends too, which at the same time meant his television company would promote my political activities,” he said. “During my meetings with him, I informed him about my political activities.”

Following this extraordinary confession, Okruashvili was release from detention on bail of 10 million laris which, at around six million US dollars, is an unprecedented sum for Georgia.

Okruashvili’s lawyer Eka Beselia met Okruashvili at his home, and said afterwards that his client was being forced into abandoning his political activity. He suggested that the confession had been made under duress.

One of Okruashvili’s supporters, member of parliament Koka Guntsadze, sent out a similar message on October 11, saying the ex-minister was “leaving politics” and that he was in very poor health after making a forced confession.

The video showed Okruashvili looking despondent and reacting slowly to the questions put to him, causing opposition politicians to allege that he had been drugged or tortured into making his confession.

This was dismissed by the justice ministry, which said that Okruashvili had been examined by a group of independent doctors, who found his state of health to be satisfactory.

An interactive opinion poll conducted by the opposition Imedi television channel , found that 94 per cent of viewers thought Okruashvili was telling the truth when he accused the president on September 25, while only six per cent believed he was being sincere on October 8 when he retracted his statements.

Following Okruashvili’s release, Patarkatsishvili, who co-owns Imedi, has become the chief target of official anger in Georgia, and has been accused of plotting to destabilise the government.

When Patarkatsishvili first openly criticised the Georgian authorities last year, Giorgi Bokeria, who is frequently referred to as the chief ideologist of the ruling United National Movement, described him as a Georgian “godfather.”

Moscow has been trying to extradite Patarkatsishvili for alleged misdemeanours in the Nineties, when he was one of the main shareholders of Russia’s First television channel. Tbilisi has refused to agree to the extradition request, but now people close to President Saakashvili are saying Patarkatsishvili might face prosecution in Georgia.

Economic development minister Giorgi Arveladze went further, saying in an interview to Rustavi-2 television that Patarkatsishvili had now teamed up with the Russians to conspire against Georgia. “In Moscow, they decided to change tactics and organise an opposition plot [in Georgia] with Patarkatsishvili’s help,” he said.

In the midst of the latest upheavals, Georgia’s National Olympic Committee suspended Patarkatsishvili as its president. Five-times world chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili was the only member of the committee’s governing council to vote against the suspension, which she said was “the result of direct interference from the ruling party”.

Patarkatsishvili himself has dismissed the allegations against him as “groundless” and a “stepped-up black PR campaign.” He said he planned to hand over his television company to Rupert Murdoch, who already co-owns Imedi.

Opposition leader Kakha Kukava of the Conservative Party said Patarkatsishvili had been targeted because his television station was a real counterweight to the authorities, who he said had attempted to “monopolise all spheres”. Kukava said Patarkatsishvili and the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, were the only substantial independent figures left in public life.

The events of the last two weeks have given birth to a new Georgian opposition movement which is planning a major rally in Tbilisi on November 2. Opposition activists have been on the streets, inviting people to sign petitions and write letters criticising the authorities.

Georgian political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze said the opposition had been wrong-footed by the latest developments.

“Okruashvili’s retraction may be seen as a blow to its interests, because it was he and his statements that catalysed various opposition parties into joining forces,” he said.

The opposition itself denies this. “The opposition is firm and solid,” said Tina Khidasheli, one of the leaders of the Republican Party. “It doesn’t matter what Okruashvili says. No one should think that the questions are going to disappear, whatever he says. We have not united under the banner of Okruashvili; we just want the problems that have plagued our country for the last three years to be solved.”

The opposition is calling for an early parliamentary election to be held next April, and for the institution of Georgian president to be abolished altogether.

Both parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for the end of 2008.

Ordinary people say they are bewildered by the extraordinary and quick-moving developments.

“Saakashvili called Okruashvili the best prosecutor general and best minister. Now he says Okruashvili stole state money and is almost a traitor to his people,” said Anzor, a pensioner. “First, Okruashvili tells us Saakashvili is a bandit, and then suddenly he is remorseful. What are we supposed to make of all this? When was Irakli telling the truth, and when was he lying?”

“I will certainly go to the rally”, said Anzor’s neighbour Bidzina, a lecturer at a Tbilisi university. “I don’t care about Saakashvili or Okruashvili; I will go there to preserve my dignity. Every day, the television tells me that my country is developing economically, and all I see is rising prices that stop me from buying anything.

“When I say this to my colleagues over the phone, they whisper that I shouldn’t talk like that because the telephones are tapped. What is this? A time of terror? What times are we living in? It’s a disgrace!”

Mikhail Vignansky is a correspondent with Vremya Novostei newspaper in Tbilisi

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