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27 Sep, 2007 15:18

Critic of Georgian President faces charges

Irakly Okruashvili, a former close ally of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, has been detained by the police and charges have been brought against him. It comes just two days after Mr Okruashvili publicly accused the President and his entourage of g

The accusations included corruption and plotting to assassinate significant figures in the republic.

Mr Okruashvili is Georgia's former Defence Minister. In November last year he left Saakashvili's team.

Two days ago he declared the creation of an opposition Movement for United Georgia. He is considered a political heavyweight and is thought to be able to give Mikhail Saakashvili a good run for his money in next year's presidential election.

“Irakly Okruashvili is charged with violations of the Criminal Code of Georgia in article 181 – extortion, 194 – money laundering, 382 – abuse of office and 342 – violations of official instructions. Stipulated by official conditions, he will be charged according to the law. The Prosecutor’s office will demand his preliminary confinement,” Georgia’s Deputy Prosecutor General Nika Gvaramia said.

The charges date back to 2005 when Mr Okruashvili founded a construction company which had 149 million (about $US 90 million) worth of contracts from the Defence Ministry. Mr Gvaramia also detailed allegations of fraud involving the sale of shares in Georgia’s No.2 mobile phone company along with the questions arising from the purchase of his newly established political party’s headquarters in downtown Tbilisi.

Anti-corruption has been one of President Saakashvili’s major themes and his government claims that controlling it is one of its main achievements. As recently as Thursday Georgia was downgraded in Transparency International’s global corruption index and is now no longer considered to be a very corrupt country. So in the minds of the administration this is one more example of the government fighting corruption.

However, opposition figures in Georgia see these allegations as politically motivated.

“This government must go. All illusions of a just political process have been blown away today. The time has come to take to the streets and get rid of Saakashvili’s regime. This shows clearly that he is both a murderer and a gang leader,” Koba Davitashvili, Georgian People’s Party leader, said to journalists after Okruashvili’s detainment.

Meanwhile, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili himself has blamed Russia for stoking up unrest in Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Fierce gunbattles have erupted in the region over the past two weeks, killing two people.

Georgian President blasts Russia in the UN

More accusations to follow?

Russia-Georgia conflict – the background

Georgian President blasts Russia in the UN

Saakashvili addressed the UN General Assembly on same day heavy gunfire erupted in the area of the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict zone.  One woman was severely wounded in the incident late on Wednesday.

Speaking to delegates at the UN about another incident on September 20 in Abkhazia, President Saakashvili strongly hinted at Russian involvement. 

“One has to wonder what a lieutenant-colonel of the Russian army was doing in the Georgian forests, organising and leading a group of armed insurgents in the mission of subversion and violence,” he said addressing the UN's General Assembly on Wednesday.

The Georgian President told the UN it was now time to remove Russia's peacekeeping force in the area and replace it with an international contingent.

But Russia was quick to retort. Russia says soldiers training at Abkhazia's anti-terrorist training centre near the border with Georgia were attacked by Georgian forces and that Russian instructors on contract to the training centre were stabbed and shot to death.

“This to us is another manifestation of the course of action which regrettably the Georgian authorities have taken lately in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and in other conflict situations in Georgia. They have been doing everything to aggravate tensions,” said Russia's Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin.

The incident on September 20 is being investigated by the UN and peacekeepers in the area.

It has been announced that Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, will meet his Georgian counterpart, a meeting that was originally due to take place on Tuesday but was cancelled.

“Yesterday the Georgian side asked us to name a time for such a meeting. We've  scheduled the meeting for Thursday. First and foremost, I will be discussing this intolerable situation in the areas of the South Ossetian and Abkhazian conflict, as well as incidents constantly staged by the Georgians to disturb the situation.  Simultaneously thay make statements about building up the arms of the Georgian army and other special services. I want to get total clarity from my counterpart regarding the true intensions of the Georgian authorities,” Sergey Lavrov said. 

The Russian Foreign Minister has been calling all week long for the immediate release of the Russian peacekeepers held in Georgia since late August.

More accusations to follow?

Mr Saaskashvili says Russian peacekeepers are constructing a new military base and have abandoned any pretence of neutrality. This view is shared even by the Georgian President's political opponents.

“Nobody in this country believes Russian troops on the administrative border between Georgia and the separatist regions serve their purpose and serve the mission of the United Nations,” Tina Khidasheli, Georgian MP, thinks.

With Tbilisi and Moscow at loggerheads yet again, the next few weeks could see a repetition of tit-for-tat sanctions and accusations.  Such measures have dominated relations between the two countries since the ‘Rose Revolution’ of 2003.

Russia-Georgia conflict – the background

Abkhazia and Georgia fought a bitter civil war when the Soviet Union collapsed. As a result the former province has gained de-facto independence, endorsed by Moscow.

But, since coming to power in the so-called ‘Rose Revolution’, President Saakashvili has vowed to restore the territorial integrity of Georgia – the crux of the conflict with Russia.

“The Georgian government many times declared its readiness to re-fight the wars that were fought in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the beginning of the 1990s. The goal of the Russian Federation is to prevent the worst from happening and to protect the minorities inside Georgia,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, President of the Unity for Russia Foundation.

South Ossetia has shared Abkhazia's post-Soviet fate, with persistent tension with Tbilisi.

And relatins between Russia nad Tbilis have been on the slide for at least 24 months.

A year ago, a spy scandal erupted between the two countries, taking relations to their lowest ebb since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The conflict began when four Russian officers were detained in Georgia in September 2006. They were charged with spying for Moscow. The Kremlin was outraged at the arrest. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Georgia's actions 'anti-Russian'. Eventually the officers were released.

However, relations between the two countries deteriorated dramatically as a result of the incident.

Russia recalled its ambassador from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for several months, cut air and post communications with Georgia, and stopped granting visas to Georgian citizens.

The issuing of visas has since been partially resumed.