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Georgia: The Ally Who Turned On Saakashvili

By Salome Asatiani

Once he was among the closest allies of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Then this week, a year since vanishing from the political scene, Irakli Okruashvili returned as one of Saakashvili's harshest critics, accusing the Georgian leader of personally ordering the murder of a political enemy. Now police have detained Okruashvili at his office in Tbilisi. RFE/RL profiles the man whose sensational return and detention have shaken the Georgian political scene.

September 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Georgians are well-accustomed to Okruashvili's coarse, no-nonsense style.

He's the man, after all, who once said Russians would buy anything, even fecal matter -- and that was why Georgia sold them wines that wouldn't sell in Europe.

He also famously announced that Georgians would spend the first day of 2007 celebrating New Year's in Tskhinvali, the capital of Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia. The remark was seen as a baldly aggressive threat against the separatist region.

But his outburst at a September 25 news conference was unprecedented.

"Daily repressions, destructions of houses and churches, robbery of citizens, and murder -- and I want to underline murder -- have become routine practices of our government," he said.

Okruashvili went on to say Saakashvili had "exceeded all limits," turning "immorality, injustice, and oppression" into an everyday occurrence.

Yet To Offer Evidence

Headline-grabbing, to be sure. But Okruashvili, who went as far as to say he had received personal orders from the president to eliminate opponents, has yet to offer evidence to back up his accusations.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service earlier today, Okruashvili was asked whether he is able to provide concrete evidence in support of his sensational claim. He responded by saying only that the public was more interested in learning how Saakashvili himself would respond to the allegations.

"Like I said, everything should happen in due time," he said. "I am now going to do positive things, instead of continuing the war of compromising evidence. However, if this is what the government wants, I will be ready."

Okruashvili -- who alternately served as prosecutor-general, and interior, defense, and, very briefly, economy minister under Saakashvili's leadership -- said he assumed responsibility for all the wrongdoing that he alleges took place in the presidential administration. Asked why he waited until now to divulge his claims, however, he said it didn't seem appropriate to go public at the time.

"I don't think it would have been right that, say, when Saakashvili was ordering the beating of [opposition deputy] Valeri Gelashvili, to come out and start saying things in public," he said. "There was a time when I could effectively stop these kind of things from within. But after a certain point, my resources were no longer sufficient for this."

Without evidence, it is unclear how far Okruashvili's accusations will go toward tarnishing the reputation of Georgia's charismatic leader, who remains popular within the country and enjoys unwavering support from the West.

In public, Okruashvili has always been known as a strong-willed, unsmiling, hard-liner. During his time in Saakashvili's government, he was often seen on television in the company of soldiers, armed with a Kalashnikov.

His words were often followed by actions -- be it a personal raid on a brothel, or, after Russia had banned imports of Georgian wines, sending a cluster of grapes to Moscow by express mail.

But Okruashvili was also strongly disliked by many who viewed him as a populist who relied on machismo, sanctioning the harsh treatment of soldiers, illegal arrests, corruption, and unlawful confiscation of property.

Saakashvili's decision to move him from the post of defense minister to that of economy minister -- which is what Okruashvili said ultimately prompted him to leave politics -- was largely seen as a result of his controversial reputation and his hawkish stance toward Georgia's breakaway regions.

Rapid Rise

Born in 1973 in Tskhinvali, Okruashvili studied international law and then worked as a lawyer. Prior to the 2003 Rose Revolution, he was virtually unknown in national politics. But Davit Darchiashvili, a political scientist and head of the Open Society-Georgia Foundation, says that after the government change, Okruashvili rapidly acquired popularity.

"Other individuals were leaving their mark on political processes, while this person [Okruashvili] remained more in the background, or was aligned with someone else. But he was not an independent figure for a very long time," Darchiashvili says. "After becoming a member of the government -- and this, it seems, was predetermined by his contribution to the revolutionary processes -- he became popular because of the statements he made, or steps he undertook."

His reputation, however, was far from flawless. Giga Bokeria of the ruling National Movement party told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that Okruashvili's standing in the government began to weaken as much as a year before his departure, prompted by the arrest of several of his associates on corruption charges.

"I can tell you with certainty now that [Okruashvili], unfortunately, reacted very painfully to this, and believed there were conspiracies, certain intrigues against him," Bokeria says. "Naturally, we tried to be attentive toward him, as a member of our team, and say that this was certainly not the case, and that it was a fight based on those principles that brought this government to power, and why people elected us. But as it subsequently became clear, Okruashvili did not share those values, and kept this bitterness in his heart."

Bokeria, for one, dismisses Okruashvili's allegations against Saakashvili as nothing more than the claims of a political orphan seeking vengeance.

"This man betrayed his aims, everything he once believed in, and has turned his back on not only his political team -- this is not the primary problem -- but on his country, for that cascade of slander and smear which we all heard, absolutely unfounded lies of course, was directed against Georgia in the first place," Bokeria says. "So we have all seen this already. I think we can all see how enthusiastically this was picked up in Moscow, and a whole international campaign is being prepared now."

But political scientist Darchiashvili says Okruashvili's appeal largely rested on him being seen as a figure of virile authority -- features, according to the political scientist, that resonate with the Georgian public.

"He was closer to these kind of military-patriotic themes, and he was associated with a warrior spirit, so to speak," he says. "And his popularity was largely determined by this factor. In this country or society, a semi-rational longing for a 'strong hand' is still evident, and for those who seek this kind of hand, Okruashvili represented an interesting figure."

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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