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29 Sep, 2007 19:47

Saakashvili: "I've fought corruption all my life"

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has denied allegations of corruption made by former Defence Minister Irakli Okruashvili. The statement follows several days of silence from the President.

Police detained Irakli Okruashvili shortly after he accused the President and his inner circle of serious crimes, including plotting to assassinate public figures in Georgia.

The latest events in Georgia are Georgia's internal affairs. But we express the hope that the mass protests there will be peaceful and that both sides will show maturity and political foresight, and that these protests will not lead to clashes, or victims, God forbid. We see what is happening in Burma now, and there are already victims there.

Vladimir Putin

President “wounded” by former ally’s words

Opposition unites to protest

Russia expresses concerns

Former ally

Corruption charges
The rule of law?

Political persecution?

President “wounded” by former ally’s words

Mikhail Saakashvili said Mr Okruashvili accuses him of things he has been fighting all his life.

“Speaking as a human being, I'm very much wounded by what Okruashvili has said. I am used to false accusations being made against me and my family, but this time it is different, as this is a man who clearly knows that everything he says is a lie. What he accuses us of is exactly what I have been fighting against all my life – namely, the abuse of power for the benefit of one's relatives. He accuses us of doing things we regard as unacceptable, of things we never did and never will do – as he very well knows,” the Georgian President said.

Mikhail Saakashvili also promised not to interfere in the trial of Mr Okruashvili.

Opposition unites to protest

The release of the former Defence Minister was not the only demand of the protesters. Coming from a wide range of opposition groups in Georgia, they also called for the resignation of the government and early elections. 

“We want to change Georgian political life. We don’t need the presidential institution anymore. It just doesn’t work in Georgia because the president here is like a king. We don’t want a king here,” said Levan Gachechiladze, a Member of Parliament from the Democratic Front faction.

Although no violence was reported, the rally was monitored by a large contingent of police. The rally in Tbilisi may be the biggest since the 2003 Rose Revolution, which swept Mikhail Saakashvili to power. 

According to reports, the opposition groups in Georgia have agreed to form an organising committee to plan further protests over the next few days.

Russia expresses concerns

President Vladimir Putin has commented on Russia's position regarding the latest events in Georgia. Speaking at a media briefing, President Putin expressed his hope that the protests in Georgia will not turn violent.

“The latest events in Georgia are Georgia's internal affairs. But we express the hope that the mass protests there will be peaceful and that both sides will show maturity and political foresight, and that these protests will not lead to clashes, or victims, God forbid. We see what is happening in Burma now, and there are already victims there,” Vladimir Putin said.

“What can be said in general? Some of our friends often hold up as an example the democratic process in some countries in the post-Soviet area, including Georgia. God save us from following examples of that kind,” he added.

Speaking later in the day in the Kodori gorge, the only part of the breakaway region of Abkhazia under central government control, President Saakashvili criticised Russia, arguing that Friday’s protests show that Georgia is a country where freedom of expression is protected.

“Russia's President Vladimir Putin has expressed concerns over democratic processes in Georgia. I would like to say, as far as democracy is concerned, that in Georgia there is the rule of law. There is a difference between Russia and Georgia. Here in my country you can openly criticise whoever you want, including me,” he added.

But experts say that the statements don't change much regarding Russia-Georgia relations as they are already in a poor condition.  

“I don’t think that there will be a wide reaction now, because Russia is concerned with its own elections. Russia’s response will be proportioned, but there will certainly be more tension in Russia–Georgia relations, which are already in a bad state,” commented Irina Kobrinskaya political analyst.

Former ally

Mr Okruashvili and President Mikhail Saakashvili were close political partners until they fell out last year. The former held many senior jobs in Georgia before the split, including the post of Prosecutor General, Interior Minister, Defence Minister and – for a short time – Economy Minister. In November last year he left Mr Saakashvili's team.
On Tuesday he created a new opposition party – the Movement for a 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.
Corruption charges
On Thursday Mr Okruashvili was detained by police in the office of his newly-created party. Later in the evening the Prosecutor General’s Office announced it was going to charge him with a number of corruption-related crimes.

“Irakli Okruashvili will be 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 that had 146 million lari (about $US 90 million) worth of contracts with the Defence Ministry.  At that time Mr Okruashvili was the Minister of Defence.
Mr Gvaramia also detailed allegations of fraud involving the sale of shares in Georgia’s second-biggest mobile phone company.    
Questions are also being asked about the purchase of Mr Okruashvili's newly-established political party’s headquarters in downtown Tbilisi.
The rule of law?
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. The Government sees this as a victory in its fight against corruption.
Officials from the U.S. State Department say Okruashvili’s detention is not politically motivated, but is connected with his past.

Mikhail Saakashvili, who is in New York at the UN General Assembly, hasn’t commented on the arrest of Mr Okruashvili. However, his close ally and a member of Georgian Parliament, Giga Bokeria, said the arrest demonstrated the law was working in Georgia:
“It’s clear that the disgraceful accusations by Okruashvili were nothing more than an attempt to turn this case into a political one. But the rule of law prevails in Georgia. Despite all the political statements they make and irrespective of their political views, those who would commit crimes, abuse their official position, or steal money, will be punished,” said Mr Bokeria.

The Vice Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Mikhail Machavariani, called on the Prosecutor General’s Office to look into the allegations made by Irakli Okruashvili.

“We want the Prosecutor’s Office to question Okruashvili and his supporters as to whether they have some factual proof of the allegations they brought against the President over the past few days,” said Mikhail Machavariani.
Political persecution?
Meanwhile, Mr Okruashvili's lawyer Eka Beselia says her client denies all the charges: “He says he distrusts the investigation, the Prosecutor’s Office and the court. He doesn’t plead guilty to any charges, and he has given me a special address to the Georgian people,” she said.
Many opposition figures in Georgia see the allegations against Irakli Okruashvili 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 Davitashvil, leader of the Georgian People’s Party, told journalists after Okruashvili’s detainment.