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".

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