(photo credit: AP)
A wealthy Georgian Jewish businessman, Badri Patarkatsishvili, who is accused by the government in Tbilisi of plotting a coup against it and fomenting the anti-government protests that have flared there in recent days, is believed to be in Israel, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The silver-haired Patarkatsishvili announced on Saturday that he would run for the Georgian presidency in elections that have been moved forward, because of the unrest, to January. Georgia's prosecutor-general said on the weekend that his office wanted to question the billionaire businessman and would "take actions" to bring him in for investigation.
Georgia's ambassador to Israel, Lasha Zhvania, told the Post on Sunday night that he was still seeking to ascertain whether Patarkatsishvili was in Israel. In the past few days, several media organizations from his home region have carried interviews and comments from Patarkatsishvili sourced in Israel.
Zhvania said that if Patarkatsishvili did not appear for questioning within three days of the formal request for his appearance being issued by the prosecutor-general, his government would ask friendly countries for their assistance in the matter. Experts said Israel might then face the dilemma of whether to oppose such a request from a friendly, US-allied government.
Patarkatsishvili is understood to have visited Israel several times in the past, and to have close contacts in the Israeli leadership, including with President Shimon Peres. He was a key sponsor of last June's Peres Center-organized soccer "Peace Match," which saw Spanish champions Real Madrid play an exhibition game at Ramat Gan National Stadium against a "peace team" of Palestinian and Israeli professional players.
Owner of a Tbilisi soccer team and a former president of the Georgian National Olympic Committee, Patarkatsishvili, who also spends some of his time in London, has mineral and aluminum assets in Russia and media interests that include the Imedi TV station, widely watched by Georgian Jews in Israel, but now closed by the Georgian government.
Two weeks ago, he announced that he would finance political opposition to the government of President Mikhail Saakashvili, who last week moved elections forward to January 5 amid unrest that prompted him to impose a state of emergency.
In an Israel-sourced interview with Reuters late last week, Patarkatsishvili said he had "decided to participate in the presidential election," and that Saakashvili's "regime has completely discredited itself in the eyes of the Georgian people, who will never again entrust it [with] its destiny."
He has been quoted as saying his election slogan will be "Georgia without Saakashvili is Georgia without Terror." However, opposition parties are not supporting him.
Dr. Brenda Shaffer, a lecturer on Central Asia and the Caucasus region at the University of Haifa, said Sunday she saw "the hand of Russia" behind the trouble in Georgia, and noted that many of Patarkatsishvili's assets were held in Russia and that the businessman might be motivated to "curry favor" with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The current unrest is the country's worst crisis since Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003. In the four intervening years, Saakashvili has tackled corruption and presided over economic growth, but has lost popularity because of poverty in rural areas.
Legislator Giga Bokeria, an associate of the president, last week flatly accused Patarkatsishvili of plotting a coup with Russia. Moscow denied involvement. Bokeria said Patarkatsishvili had used the Imedi station to foment unrest.
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