Huge protests in Tbilisi demand election after corruption claims

Thousands took to the streets of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, yesterday to demand snap elections following a series of extraordinary corruption allegations directed at President Mikhail Saakashvili by a formerly close political ally.

The largest massed demonstration since the so-called Rose Revolution, which brought Mr Saakashvili to power in 2003, was triggered by a televised tirade against the President by Irakli Okruashvili, the 33-year-old former defence minister. Mr Okruashvili, who left the government a year ago, was subsequently arrested on charges of extortion and money laundering.

The former minister, who has recently formed an opposition political party, levelled a number of accusations at Mr Saakashvili, long seen in the West as a democratising reformer, stating that his government "has made dishonesty, injustice and repression a way of life". He said the government had covered up the true cause of the death in 2005 of the then Prime Minister, Zurab Zhvania, without giving more details. The official version is that Mr Zhvania died from carbon monoxide poisoning after a gas leak.

Perhaps the most sensational allegation made by Mr Okruashvili was that in July 2005, the President personally ordered him to have Badri Patarkatsishvili assassinated. Patarkatsishvili is a Georgian oligarch currently living in London and the long-time business partner of Boris Berezovsky.

"Saakashvili told me we should get rid of him the same way as Rafik Hariri," said Mr Okruashvili, adding that the President had a "concrete plan" in place. Mr Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, was killed in a car bomb attack in Beirut in February 2005. Mr Okruashvili claims to have passed on this information to the American government, after which Mr Saakashvili never spoke about the planned assassination again.

When Mr Saakashvili came to power in the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003, he promised to eradicate corruption, raise living standards, and turn Georgia from a corrupt dictatorship under president Eduard Shevardnadze into a modern democracy. He sent Georgian troops to Iraq to aid the coalition forces and even named a street in Tbilisi after George Bush. In response, Georgia received vast amounts of US financial aid, and political support in disputes with Russia.

But while Mr Saakashvili's government has certainly made huge strides in fighting corruption, and raised living standards for much of the population, many have questioned his democratic credentials, and Mr Okruashvili's allegations and subsequent arrest have given them a rallying point.

"I have no doubt that the accusations are 100 per cent true," said Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican Party. "Everyone has been talking about them for a long time, but now someone from the inner circle has come out with it, they have more credibility."

Some analysts in Georgia questioned Mr Okruashvili's motives in making the allegations. "He already knew he was going to be arrested," said Alex Rondeli, the president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. "He knew that the best thing for him was to say these extraordinary things, which I think are false."

The former defence minister would be a strange leader for the democratic opposition, however, given his reputation as an uncompromising hawk. "Okruashvili used to be too close to power not to be implicated in some of the allegations," said Magdalena Frichova, the Tbilisi-based Caucasus project director at the International Crisis Group. "This is not a vote for Okruashvili."

But whatever their feelings about Mr Okruashvili himself, the protesters found resonance in his allegations. "People didn't come here because of Okruashvili," said Ms Khidasheli. "They came with their own anger."

The protestors dispersed peacefully in the evening, with opposition figures promising more to come. "A lot will depend on how Saakashvili responds," said Ms Khidasheli. The Georgian President has not yet returned after addressing the UN General Assembly in New York. If he doesn't increase governmental accountability and defuse the crisis, she said, "there could be a revolution".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'