Anti-Saakashvili Plot Uncovered

Itar-TassIrina Sarishvili, head of the Hope party, peering out at Tblisi on Wednesday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia said Wednesday that it had uncovered a plot by opposition politicians sympathetic to Russia to overthrow the country's pro-Western leadership.

A Georgian official said Tbilisi would be asking its neighbor Russia whether it funded the alleged plot. Georgia has fraught relations with Russia and accuses the Kremlin of trying to undermine it.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili announced the alleged coup plot after masked police carried out early-morning raids throughout the country. They rounded up 29 people linked to the opposition Justice Party.

"A special operation ... was carried out today at 5 a.m. across Georgia," Merabishvili told a news conference. "These people are charged with plotting a coup d'etat."

Georgia's leadership has said in the past that the Justice Party is financed by Moscow. It is led from exile by Igor Giorgadze, a former Georgian national security chief charged with trying to assassinate former President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Russia has denied it has interfered in Georgian politics. Moscow said the administration of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili administration sought out confrontation with Moscow to distract voters from its own failures.

But the arrests are likely to be a new irritant between Moscow and Tbilisi, which have waged a war of words since Saakashvili swept to power in 2003's "Rose Revolution."

Saakashvili wants to lead Georgia -- for two centuries a Russian satellite -- toward NATO and the European Union.

Giorgadze said Saakashvili was rounding up opposition activists to suppress opposition to his rule. The Justice Party is small and has no seats in the parliament, though it has staged noisy anti-Saakashvili protests in the capital.

Television showed policemen with automatic weapons escorting handcuffed suspects out of their homes and offices. About 450 police took part in the operation, Merabishvili said.

Police said the raids uncovered cash and weapons.

Those arrested included several well-known opposition politicians. The Justice Party favors restoring the close ties Georgia used to have with Russia.

This week, Moscow and Tbilisi traded barbs after a helicopter carrying the Georgian defense minister was shot at as it flew over South Ossetia.

Western governments have applauded Saakashvili for his economic reforms and for tackling endemic crime and corruption.

But voters are impatient for quick improvements in their living standards, which has led Saakashvili's popularity to slip.