Georgia: Opposition leaders charged with 'espionage'
On November 9, two days after Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Soviet republic of Georgia's pro-US president, ordered riot police to club and tear-gas anti-government protesters in the capital Tbilisi, Georgian officials issued arrest warrants for two opposition leaders on charges of "espionage". Hospitals reported that nearly 600 protesters sought medical treatment after the police assault.
The protests, which began on November 2, involved up to 100,000 people. They were organised by a 10-party opposition coalition following the broadcasting in September of a TV interview with former Saakashvili defence minister Irakli Okruashvili, who accused the president of ordering the assassination of a London-based pro-opposition business magnate.
Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili and Freedom Party leader Konstantin Gamsakhurdia were also charged with plotting to overthrow the government in collusion with "foreign forces".
Saakashvili, a US-trained lawyer, had claimed on November 7 — the same day that he declared a state of emergency, imposing a 15-day ban on all non-government TV and radio news broadcasts — that Moscow had orchestrated the mass protests to bring down his government. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the allegation, saying: "As regards the accusations against Russia, ask the opposition leaders or the people in the street. They will laugh at you."
Within hours of the declaration of the state of emergency, Georgian special forces soldiers raided the pro-opposition Imedi TV station, smashing up its equipment. "We understand that the main aim of the government and the special forces was not to stop our broadcast but to crash and break everything inside our station and terrorise the staff", Imedi news anchorperson Giorgi Targamadze told the November 10 New York Times by telephone.
The NYT also reported that Georgian PM Giga Bokeria, a close ally of Saakashvili, had told it by telephone that the TV station, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, would remain closed even after the lifting of the state of emergency.
On November 8, Saakashvili announced that new presidential elections would be held on January 5, almost 12 months ahead of schedule. He also announced that a national referendum would be held the same day to determine whether parliamentary elections should be held next April, when the current parliamentary term expires, or postponed until later in the year.
The US government, Saakashvili's closest ally, stated on November 9 that it "welcomes" the early presidential vote.
Commenting on Saakashvili's announcement to Associated Press TV News in Germany on November 10, Okruashvili said: "There will not be a competitive environment and he will have a 100% chance to keep power."
Associated Press reported on November 12 that US deputy assistant secretary of state Matthew Bryza told reporters upon his arrival in Tbilisi that before Saakashvili was elected president in early 2004, Washington's interest in Georgia was limited mainly to concerns about oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea. "But today what makes Georgia a top tier issue for the United States government is democracy", Bryza claimed.
The November 10 NYT however noted that Saakashvili had "secured strong relations with the Bush administration in part by sending thousands of Georgian soldiers to the American-led coalition in Iraq, and has pledged to send a smaller contingent to Afghanistan next spring".
With 2000 troops in Iraq (up from 850 a year ago), Georgia has the third largest presence — after the US and Britain — in the foreign forces occupying Iraq.
Associated Press noted on November 14 that public support for Saakashvili "has dwindled because of his government's failure to end widespread poverty". In 2005, average Georgian household's monthly income was about US$200. While Georgia's real GDP has doubled since 1994, it is still only half its Soviet era maximum, reached in 1989.