Encouraged by a large turnout at a recent protest rally and sensing an undercurrent of popular discontent, the opposition are set to extend their campaign to the provinces. Key figures from Saakashvili’s administration, meanwhile, have accused the opposition of blackmail.
Thousands gathered outside Parliament on September 28, following ex-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili’s arrest a day earlier. Opposition leaders have claimed over 20,000 people were in attendance; other estimates were lower, ranging from 10,000 to 15,000. Whatever the exact numbers, it was certainly the largest anti-government demonstration since 2003.
In often emotional speeches, many speakers at the rally demanded the release of Okruashvili, early parliamentary elections and “Georgia without a presidency.”
All the main opposition parties, except the New Rights Party, have jointed the campaign.
Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican Party said on September 28 that the major goal was to involve the entire country in the campaign.
“It should be an electoral revolution,” she said on a late-night talk show on Imedi TV. “I hope and believe it will be an electoral revolution and nothing else.”
She, however, also implied that it could be something more, unless President Saakashvili got rid his inner circle, in particular Vano Merabishvili, the interior minister.
Her remarks have been a common theme, with Irakli Okruashvili, in an interview with the Georgian daily Rezonansi a day before his arrest, saying that “Saakashvili should make a political U-turn before it's too late.”
To facilitate this change, he said, the president should “kick-out his dirty” inner circle.
In previous statements, Okruashvili, apart from President Saakashvili, also attacked Giga Bokeria, an influential lawmaker from the ruling party, calling him “Saakashvili’s major ideologist” and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.
Paradoxically. most of the politicians behind the campaign were previously fierce critics of Okruashvili when he was in the government. They have, however, insisted that the campaign is not about Okruashvili.
“This is not a matter of uniting under Okruashvili's banner; this is a matter of democracy,” Salome Zourabichvili, leader of the opposition Georgia’s Way party, said while speaking live from Washington with Imedi TV on September 28.
Zourabichvili is visiting Washington together with two other opposition politicians, Davit Usupashvili and Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, leaders of the Republican and Freedom parties, respectively.
The three leaders spoke about recent developments in Georgia at a Washington-based think-tank, the Nixon Center, on September 28. The Nixon Center’s website said the three had addressed “growing questions about President Mikheil Saakashvili's observance of democratic standards.”
Also speaking to Imedi TV from Washington, Davit Usupashvili said officials in the U.S. administration were “alarmed” with developments in Georgia. “They are asking the question: is there an alternative democratic political force to the current administration in Georgia?” Usupashvili said.
Gigi Ugulava, the Mayor of Tbilisi and Saakashvili’s closest ally, spoke on behalf of the authorities on September 28 in a live interview with Rustavi 2 television. (While Imedi TV remains a platform for the opposition politicians, Rustavi 2 TV is used by pro-ruling party figures.)
Ugulava described the recent developments as the opposition’s attempt “to blackmail” the authorities.
He said there was nothing extraordinary in the timing of Okruashvili’s arrest – two days after the ex-defense minister leveled a number of serious accusations against Saakashvili.
“He was arrested after we had obtained incontrovertible evidence of those grave crimes with which he is charged,” Ugulava said.
Okruashvili is charged with large-scale bribery through extortion, money laundering, misuse of power and negligence while serving as Defense Minister. The General Prosecutor’s Office on September 28 added to the list of alleged crimes by accusing Okruashvili of purchasing “rusty bullets” for the armed forces.
“Our soldiers could have died because of these rusty bullets,” Gigi Ugulava said. “And no matter how many people gather at the rally, the lives of our soldiers are much more important.”
“This is an example of our resolute drive to fight corruption," he said. "We are politically committed to continuing the crack down on corruption.”