Georgia opposition leader threatens million-strong protests
* Country’s richest man says Georgian coalition would defeat Saakashvili’s ruling party
TBILISI: Georgia’s billionaire opposition leader called President Mikheil Saakashvili a “professional liar” and a “son of a dog”, threatening million-strong protests if parliamentary polls are rigged.
In a bitter personal attack on his rival before the crucial vote on October 1, tycoon-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili accused Saakashvili of turning Western-backed Georgia into an authoritarian state like its enemy Russia. “In fact it is an authoritarian system. Is it any better than in Russia or Belarus?” he said in an interview with AFP at his huge glass-and-steel mansion complex on a hilltop overlooking Tbilisi.
The country’s richest man said he was confident that his Georgian Dream coalition would defeat Saakashvili’s ruling party in the battle for power that has polarised the small former Soviet republic. But he warned that he was prepared to launch mass protests if there were “grave violations” at the polls. “We can make one million people take to the streets,” he said. He tried however to ease concerns about the potential for post-election clashes in the small Caucasus state with a population of 4.5 million and a recent history of political turmoil and civil war. “We will act within the legal framework, peacefully, and will not allow confrontation,” he promised.
The ruling party has accused Ivanishvili of serving the interests of Russia, which crushed Georgia’s army during a brief war in 2008.
The tycoon blames Saakashvili for provoking the conflict, which ended with Moscow recognising two Georgian breakaway provinces as independent states and permanently stationing thousands of troops there. Tbilisi still has no diplomatic ties with Moscow but Ivanishvili has promised to improve relations, saying it could help Georgia’s fragile economy and speed up the return of the lost territories.
The tycoon refused to criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once reportedly vowed to hang Saakashvili “by the balls”. “I do not want to criticise him because I do not want to imitate Saakashvili and start criticising a big country. We will have to talk to (Russia) and to normalise our relationship, and I do not want to hamper this,” he explained. “How can we criticise Putin when we have Saakashvili?” he added. Ivanishvili made his estimated $6.4 billion fortune through banking and other investments in Russia, but was known until recently as a reclusive philanthropist who made massive donations to the arts, cultural heritage and social welfare projects but shunned publicity.
After announcing his challenge to the government last year, Ivanishvili was abruptly stripped of his Georgian passport for breaking citizenship rules and fined millions of dollars for violating electoral laws.
The 56-year-old currently holds a French passport, which he says he was eligible for because his Georgian wife and children are also French citizens. His modernist mansion, designed by Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu, is decorated with pictures and sculptures by contemporary artists like Damien Hirst, Roy Liechtenstein and Anish Kapoor. afp