Billionaire to run for Georgian presidency

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TBILISI, Nov 10 (Reuters) A Georgian billionaire accused of plotting a coup today declared himself a candidate in next year's presidential election, providing a potential high-profile leader for the former Soviet state's opposition.

Leaders from Georgia's main opposition parties met the government and agreed to resume negotiations on Saturday for the first time since police crushed street protests three days earlier and president Mikhail Saakashvili ordered a state of emergency.

A 10-party opposition coalition is trying to rally around a single candidate to challenge US-ally Saakashvili, whom they accuse of corruption and economic mismanagement, after he announced an early election on January 5.

Billionaire and opposition financier Badri Patarkatsishvili is one of the most prominent opposition figures in Georgia, which is experiencing one of its worst political crises since a civil war in the early 1990s.

''I have decided to participate in the presidential election,'' Patarkatsishvili said in an e-mailed statement.

''Mr Saakashvili's regime has completely discredited itself in the eyes of the Georgian people who will never again entrust it its destiny.'' But the opposition coalition denied Patarkatsishvili was its chosen presidential candidate.

''It's the first I have heard of this. We are not talking about it right now,'' opposition leader Tina Khidasheli told Reuters.

Georgia lies at the heart of the volatile Caucasus region -- an east-west transit route which hosts a pipeline pumping oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe and is wedged between Russia and the Middle East.

Saakashvili justified imposing a state of emergency because he said Russian agents were destabilising the country, charges Moscow denies. He has aggressively pursued a pro-Western agenda since surging to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution.

Yesterday, the Prosecutor-General's office accused Patarkatsishvili of plotting a coup and sought to question him.

NEGOTIATIONS The silver-haired moustachioed Patarkatsishvili is not in Georgia but is funding part of the country's opposition movement.

''My election slogan will be 'Georgia without Saakashvili is Georgia without Terror','' he wrote.

After police baton charged and chased protesters in the streets of Tbilisi on Wednesday they also raided Georgia's main independent broadcaster -- in which Patarkatsishvili is the majority owner -- and pulled it off the air.

The opposition coalition say this is undemocratic and alongside the emergency laws -- which bans independent media and meetings -- hands Saakashvili an unfair advantage in the run up to next January's presidential elections.

The coalition has yet to announce who its candidate for the election will be and its leaders declined to answer the question after meeting government officials today at the residence of Patriarch Ilia II, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

But one of the opposition coalition leaders, Salome Zurabishvili, told journalists the meeting had been positive.

''It is an important meeting,'' she said. ''It's a sign that we can start talks tonight.'' The government's representative at the meeting was the speaker of the parliament Nino Burjanadze who said full negotiations would resume at 2030 IST.

''We are ready for negotiations, we have some serious suggestions and initiatives,'' she said.

The opposition has four demands from the government. To bring forward the parliamentary election which is scheduled for the autumn, to reform the election rules, the release of certain jailed opposition figures it says are being persecuted for their political views and the resignation of the president.

REUTERS SZ BD1915

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