Wednesday, 17 October 2007

GEORGIA'S OKRUASHVILI SCANDAL: LOUD BANG WITH UNCERTAIN FALLOUT

Published in Analytical Articles

By Jaba Devdariani (10/17/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The Return of Georgia’s former hawkish Defense Minister, Irakli Okruashvili, to Georgian politics was scandalous, but short-lived. After leveling an array of heavy accusations against President Mikheil Saakashvili on September 25, Okruashvili was arrested on September 27 on charges of extortion, money laundering and negligence. Surprisingly, he pleaded guilty on October 9 and publicly recanted his allegations against the president.

The Return of Georgia’s former hawkish Defense Minister, Irakli Okruashvili, to Georgian politics was scandalous, but short-lived. After leveling an array of heavy accusations against President Mikheil Saakashvili on September 25, Okruashvili was arrested on September 27 on charges of extortion, money laundering and negligence. Surprisingly, he pleaded guilty on October 9 and publicly recanted his allegations against the president. Okruashvili’s case galvanized the opposition parties and showed the extent of the protest vote in Georgia, but the impact on internal politics might prove short-lived.

BACKGROUND: Irakli Okruashvili, a lawyer by education, served as the new government’s “bad cop” following the Rose Revolution in 2003. During his brief spells in office in 2003-2004 he presided over the arrest of Shevardnadze-era corrupt officials as Prosecutor-General, and then fired the country’s entire corrupt traffic police force as Minister of Interior to launch the new Patrol Police force. He was appointed Minister of Defense in 2004 to launch an ambitious clean-up and boost the country’s armed forces.

Despite President Saakashvili’s continuous backing, during his two years in this latest post Okruashvili gradually became a political liability. He consistently advocated military action against Georgia’s breakaway provinces, especially his native South Ossetia, and brought the country to the brink of large-scale hostilities during the outbreak of violence in 2004, which left several Georgian servicemen killed. Okruashvili was also reviled by Russia for his inflammatory rhetoric and high-handed treatment of the Russian military stationed in Georgia. Georgia’s Western military advisors often, albeit quietly, questioned his cleansing of the Ministry of Defense’s General Staff of many qualified, often Western-educated officers, in favor of his own protégés. The transparency of the Ministry’s budget was a key concern for opposition parties and NGOs. Two of Okruashvili’s personal friends and close allies – Governor of Shida Kartli province Mikheil Kareli, and Okruashvili’s deputy at the Ministry of Defense, Aleksander Sukhitashvili, were often accused by the media, NGOs and political opponents of large-scale corruption and abuse of office. Some of these accusations were backed by the Georgian Ombudsperson’s report to the parliament in April 2007.

In what was seen as a conciliatory nod towards Russia, President Saakashvili relieved Okruashvili of the Ministry of Defense and appointed him the Minister of Economy on November 10, 2006. However, Okruashvili resigned the post on November 17 and left the country, reportedly for studies. Rumors on Okruashvili’s return to politics have abounded since then, with some media sources quoting his talks with influential business and media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, a partner of the fugitive Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

In September 2007, the prosecution started to apprehend some of Okruashvili’s former allies on what seemed to be a well-documented case of soliciting systemic kick-backs from municipal auctions. These detentions culminated in the arrest of governor Mikheil Kareli on September 26. On September 25 Dimitri Kitoshvili, the president’s spokesman and parliamentary secretary, was arrested and charged with extorting mobile operator’s shares in favour of Okruashvili in his previous capacity as the Chair of the National Telecommunications Commission.

On September 25, Okruashvili launched his party with damning allegations against President Saakashvili. He accused the President of: conspiring to murder Badri Patarkatsishvili; fabricating evidence on the death of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania; plotting a split of the Georgian Orthodox Church; preventing a successful military operation to take South Ossetia’s capital, Tkshinvali and covering up the alleged corruption in his own family.

On September 27, Okruashvili was arrested on charges of extortion, money laundering, misuse of power and criminal negligence. The arrest galvanized opposition forces of all stripes, and a reported tens of thousands of people rallied in front of the Parliament on September 28 to protest what they termed the “politically motivated arrest” of Okruashvili. On October 9, the Prosecutor General’s office reported that Okruashvili pleaded guilty on several charges, including extortion and criminal negligence, and was released after posting around US$6 million in bail payment. In a televised recording of Okruashvili’s statement to the prosecutors he also failed to provide an official testimony against Mikheil Saakashvili and stated that all of his accusations were leveled for gaining political advantage. He subsequently announced his decision to quit politics.

IMPLICATIONS: In the post-Soviet space, the arrest of a President’s political rival following a series of dramatic accusations, followed by a guilty plea, naturally raise suspicions regarding due process of law. However, the legal process is far from complete as Okruashvili will have to face charges in court. The government maintains that Okruashvili made accusations against the President knowing about his imminent arrest, and hoping to increase the political costs of prosecution by posing as a defiant opposition leader.

The short-term political fallout of Okruashvili’s case was significant. Political groups of all stripes – from the populist left-wing Labor Party to the right-wing Conservative and Republican Parties – used the public perception of injustice to galvanize their extremely weak political base of support. A record-breaking turnout at September 28 rallies points at a general mobilization of the protest vote. However, these protestors are unlikely to form a unified base for any single political force, and a long-term alliance among the parties that invited the protests is highly unlikely. Okruashvili’s departure and confession of guilt is likely to make them reluctant to continue with active participation.

The opposition tries to keep the protest momentum running through radicalization of their tone. The current lowest common denominator to keep the multi-striped coalition together is “Georgia without a President” – meaning abolishment of the institution or presidency, or its significant weakening. However, this objective is only achievable if the opposition either topples Saakashvili’s government or wins the constitutional majority in the parliamentary elections. Neither of these scenarios is likely: Saakashvili still enjoys too significant a support to just cede power, while the opposition does not come across as a responsible and credible enough force to count on a victory in polls.

President Saakashvili’s reputation did, however, suffer damage to his credentials as a pro-democracy and anti-corruption fighter. He admitted that much in his initial comment, sweeping away the conspiracy to murder charges as “absurd” but singling out the corruption charges leveled by Okruashvili, as well as the fact as his formerly closest ally is prosecuted for corruption as the “most upsetting.”

At the same time, Georgia lives with a TV-driven news cycle, and even the hardest political upsets become ancient history in several months. Unless there are any significant new revelations backing Okruashvili’s claims, their effect will fizzle out. President Saakashvili is counteracting by launching a twin effort to further discredit the opposition, while showing improvement in the key painful areas laid bare by Okruashvili’s statements. As a stop-gap measure, Saakashvili already ordered compensation packages for the most vulnerable, went to Georgia’s wine-growing province of Kakheti, hard-hit by Russian sanctions, to drum up support. Saakashvili applauded the inputs of the older generation in the country’s economic development. He thus reached the key elements of the protest vote with a positive message – the disadvantaged, the agricultural workers and the middle-aged professionals that are sidelined by country’s younger, more adjusted generation of political and business leaders.

Internationally, it is unclear whether the damage will be lasting. Russian media and politicians, including President Vladimir Putin personally, are widely disseminating the message of a supposedly crumbling Georgian democracy. However, international observers appear to be taking both the Georgian and Russian versions of the events with a pinch of salt. Perhaps the worst outcome is for Georgia’s western allies to become indifferent to Georgia, but that depends on the performance of the Georgian courts in the Okruashvili case, as well as the general drive to keep the governance efficient and transparent, and allow for the fullest possible exercise of the freedom of speech and opinion by the opposition.

The ruling party whip in the parliament, Giga Bokeria, has challenged Patarkatsishvili to openly take part in politics. The tycoon’s October 11 interview to his own TV channel suggests he seriously intends to do so. It might be better for the Georgian democracy for Patarkatsishvili to play openly, rather than remain a money-bag. But such a position is disadvantageous to his political chances – with poor command of Georgian and little finesse, with an image of being super-rich in an impoverished country, Patarkatsishvili is unlikely to garner much voter sympathy.

CONCLUSIONS: President Saakashvili suffered a temporary and damaging setback following Irakli Okruashvili’s allegations. However, so far there are no grounds to expect a long-term dramatic fallout for the Georgian authorities. President Saakashvili and his National Movement are clearly in need, however, to restore popular and international confidence.

The Okruashvili crisis once again exposed the lack of avenues for channeling popular disappointment and frustration into the political process. There is a clear demand for an articulate political opposition force to take shape and compete with the authorities. Unfortunately, Okruashvili’s brash allegations and their prompt retraction have discredited some of the more nuanced political messages that might have served as a ground for forming a genuine opposition force. The nascent alliance of the Republican, “Georgia’s Way”, and “Freedom” parties who unite around a pro-European center-right agenda seems to be emerging, but it remains to be seen whether the leaders will manage to crystallize their political message before the impending elections in fall 2008.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Jaba Devdariani is the founder of Civil Georgia (civil.ge). He currently serves as a political officer at the OSCE Mission in Serbia but authored this in a private capacity. His commentary is independent of and does not necessarily reflect the views of the OSCE.
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