TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia’s prime minister said on Tuesday he would skip President Mikheil Saakashvili’s annual address to parliament this week, snubbing a rival he eclipsed by leading an opposition coalition to victory in an October election.
Bidzina Ivanishvili’s blunt promise to stay away from Saakashvili’s speech on Friday reflects tension between the ascendant billionaire premier and the long-ruling president who is barred from seeking re-election in October.
“What new he is going to say? He will probably be telling us lies again,” Ivanishvili told a news conference. “Saakashvili’s era is over. Era of lies is over in Georgia.”
Saakashvili’s acceptance last year of his party going into opposition to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition marked the country’s first peaceful transfer of power between rival parties in Georgia since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Saakashvili will address the parliament for the last time before his term ends. It will also be his first address to a parliament dominated by his adversaries.
Critics of Saakashvili, who has dominated the South Caucasus republic for nine years, say he has centralised too much power in his hands, flouted human rights and stifled dissent.
Reports of prisoner abuses led to protests in the country of 4.5 million just before the parliamentary election, eventually helping Ivanishvili to win.
The new authorities have arrested dozens of former senior officials they say were involved in rights violations and other crimes in the country, which serves as a conduit for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe.
Since taking office, Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has pledged to work to improve relations with Moscow severed over a 2008 war that left Georgia’s Soviet-era overlord recognising two breakaway regions as independent states.
But Moscow on Monday agreed to lift an embargo on Georgian wine and salty mineral water Borjomi, which should soon begin flowing back to Russia.
Reporting by Margarita Antidze, editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Mark Heinrich