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Okruashvili’s U-Turn Involves Tycoon in Standoff

Buoyed by Irakli Okruashvili’s U-turn, the authorities stepped up their aggressive rhetoric against business and media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili and announced that the crisis had come to an end. Opposition politicians, however, said the ex-defense minister’s testimony would not deter them from holding a planned mass protest rally in Tbilisi on November 2.

Irakli Okruashvili was released on bail in the early hours of October 9 after pleading guilty to extortion and negligence while serving as minister and after retracting accusations levelled by him two days before his arrest against President Saakashvili.

TV cameras captured Okruashvili’s arrival at his flat in downtown Tbilisi, accompanied by his new lawyer, Giorgi Papuashvili, and law enforcement agents. As journalists asked for comments, Okruashvili – looking tired and irritated – brushed their microphones aside and entered his apartment.

Eka Beselia, a lawyer and a member of Okruashvili’s political party, met with him later on the same day. She told reporters afterwards: “It seemed to me that he [Okruashvili] behaved out of character and irrationally.” The remarks were interpreted as an obvious attempt to back speculation that Okruashvili had either been drugged or tortured in order to elicit his confession.

The Justice Ministry denied the allegations and said in a statement on October 9 that Okruashvili had been examined by “an independent group of doctors” which said that his health was “satisfactory.”

Beselia also said after meeting Okruashvili that the former defense minister had no idea who posted his GEL 10 million bail.

Meanwhile, a group of ten opposition parties formed following Okruashvili’s arrest, are set to continue their campaign to demand early elections in April, instead of late 2008.

“The opposition stands firm and united,” Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party said. “We were not united under Okruashvili’s banner; we want to tackle the problems facing our country.”

“It makes no difference what Okruashvili says,” she added. “What’s important is that the questions asked by the public about Zhvania’s death, about Girgvliani’s case and about many other problems remain unanswered by the authorities. No one should think that these questions will disappear on the basis of what Okruashvili says.”

The authorities have responded by alleging that the opposition, as well as Okruashvili, are being “used” by business tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili (a co-owner of Imedi Media Holding) to “plot intrigues” and “conspire against the state” and to strengthen his hidden hand in the political life of Georgia.

In the taped video testimony released by the General Prosecutor’s Office on October 8, Okruashvili retracted his accusations against President Saakashvili of plotting to murder Patarkatsishvili and said that his accusation had been aimed at “gaining political dividends” for him and Patarkatsishvili.

“It is clear that it was a conspiracy and an obvious attempt to destabilize the country,” Giorgi Arveladze, the economy minister, said in an interview with Rustavi 2 TV on October 9. “The time when oligarchs, adventurers and conspirators ruled in Georgia has passed. Unfortunately, the opposition has failed to understand this.”

Arveladze, a close associate of President Saakashvili, then continued his attack on Patarkatsishvili, paying particular attention to his part-ownership of Media Holding Imedi (Hope, in Georgian) – involving a TV and radio station.

“For the past few years Patarkatsishvili’s main objective has been to plant hopelessness among the people through his propaganda machine,” Arveladze said. “Ideologically Imedi TV is a direct successor of [ex-Adjarian leader Aslan] Abashidze’s television station, which bolstered his rule in his fiefdom [Adjara]. Instead of Aslan now we have Badri [Patarkatsishvili] and there is an attempt to turn the entire country into his personal fiefdom. His Imedi TV serves only one purpose: to engender a sense of hopelessness.”

Arveladze also said that recent developments had shown that “the country can survive any crisis and, in overcoming it, can become even stronger.”

Giga Bokeria, an influential lawmaker from the ruling party, told reporters on October 9 that Patarkatsishvili was the kind of person who “is always surrounded by scandals.”

“His former bodyguard is suspected of killing a man,” MP Bokeria said, referring to Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB officer, who is wanted in London on suspicion of killing a Kremlin critic and former KGB officer, Alexander Litvinenko.

Bokeria denied that the allegations levelled by the ruling party against Patarkatsishvili amounted to “persecution by the Georgian authorities.”

“We know where he is persecuted,” Bokeria added, referring to the fact that Patarkatsishvili is wanted in Russia on fraud charges.

Imedi TV’s primetime news programme, meanwhile, announced on October 9: “The campaign against Imedi and its co-owner, Badri Patarkatsishvili, has reached enormous scales” and cited a decision by the Georgian National Olympic Committee (GNOC) to impeach Patarkatsishvili, who is the GNOC president. The decision, the programme claimed, was because of “direct interference from the ruling party.”

The face-off between the government and Patarkatsishvili is not the first time the two have come to verbal blows. Last March Patarkatsishvili accused the authorities of trying to apply pressure on his TV station, Imedi. In response, the ruling party accused Patarkatsishvili of attempting “to blackmail the Georgian government.”


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