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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 September 2007, 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK
Toughest challenge for Georgian leader
By Matthew Collin
BBC News, Tbilisi

Mikhail Saakshvili
Mr Saakshvili is accused by opponents of authoritarianism
Sensational allegations against the President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, have caused a political scandal and energised the opposition in the former Soviet republic.

This week, the former defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili, set in motion a dramatic chain of events when he accused his former ally, Mr Saakashvili, of leading a corrupt government and asking him to kill several potential opponents.

He offered no evidence, and his allegations were rejected as false and absurd.

But the former defence minister was arrested on corruption charges two days afterwards, and several thousand people took to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, in protest.

It was one of the largest demonstrations in Georgia since the Rose Revolution four years ago which brought President Saakashvili to power.

Opposition moves

Some of the speakers vowed to overthrow Mr Saakashvili, as he once overthrew his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.

Demonstration in Tbilisi on 28 September
Many in the crowd were supporters of Mr Okruashvili

Leading opposition parties have now united to form what they call the "Salvation Front".

One of its leaders told the BBC it was the start of a mass movement which would end with Mr Saakashvili facing charges in court.

She described the president as an authoritarian leader posing as a democrat.

But Mr Saakashvili, who is strongly pro-Western and wants Georgia to join Nato, remains the most popular political leader in the country, recent opinion polls have suggested.

His determination during the country's long-running dispute with neighbouring Russia has also won respect.

The opposition has until now been weak and divided.

It has failed to capitalise on discontent with the poverty, deprivation and unemployment in this small south Caucasus nation.

There are often demonstrations about low welfare benefits, but they only attract several hundred people.

Potential rival

As defence minister, Mr Okruashvili wanted to launch a military operation to seize back one of Georgia's breakaway regions, which could have thrown the country into civil war.

Irakli Okruashvili
Irakli Okruashvili was seen as a hardliner towards separatists

However, some Georgians admire his hardline stance.

Opposition leaders say Mr Okruashvili was arrested to neutralise a potential rival.

But because of age regulations, it is not even certain whether he would have been able to stand in next year's presidential elections.

No other strong challenger to Mr Saakashvili has emerged, and many believe he will probably be re-elected.

Nevertheless, Giorgi Margvelashvili, the head of the research centre at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, believes the scandal may decrease electoral support for the governing party.

He says the arrest of the former minister could also damage Georgia's international image:

"No matter that the authorities may have evidence of corruption, this will be seen as a political arrest. There is no good outcome from this scandal for Georgia," he said.

Turning point

Georgia likes to promote itself internationally as a democratic success story.

We don't see it as a threat at all - we have peaceful demonstrations all the time here
Giga Bokeria
Pro-government MP

Its economic reforms and vigorous privatisation programme have been praised by the World Bank.

But this week's events have put the government's record under scrutiny.

Discontent about deep-rooted corruption was a key issue which brought President Saakashvili to power.

However, the opposition alleges that Mr Saakashvili's high-profile campaign against graft has largely been directed against his opponents, while corruption thrives among senior officials and their business associates.

But an influential governing party MP, Giga Bokeria, told the BBC that anyone corrupt, however powerful, was hunted down.

"In Georgia, over the past three years, several high officials have been prosecuted for corruption - including people who were loyal to the government."

The Georgian opposition hopes this week's political scandal will prove to be a turning point.

However, President Saakashvili's allies say they do not believe the opposition protests will destabilise the government.

"We don't see it as a threat at all," said Mr Bokeria.

"We have peaceful demonstrations all the time here. They are a normal thing in a democratic country."




SEE ALSO
Timeline: Georgia
25 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Georgia
25 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

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