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Georgia Sees Largest Protest Rally Since Rose Revolution

  • Salome Asatiani --> Opposition supporters rally in front of the parliament building in the center of Tbilisi (epa) November 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For Georgians, it's a familiar scene: hordes of demonstrators rallying in front of the parliament building, protesting against the government and demanding change.

The last time around, it was November 2003 -- the Rose Revolution, which ousted Eduard Shevardnadze and swept pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency.

Four years later, it's Saakashvili who's at the center of public disenchantment. Tens of thousands of Georgians are estimated to have attended today's rally, organized by the National Council umbrella group, which counts democratic backsliding among its complaints about the country's leader. Some members go so far as to call for a "Georgia without a president," replacing the current system with a constitutional monarchy or a parliamentary republic.

Most of the dozen parties that make up the National Council are not represented in parliament, and the group has been faulted for a lack of cohesion on key issues. It only recently united behind a demand that parliamentary elections be restored to the spring of 2008 -- responding to a nearly year-old decision by the government to delay the ballot until autumn 2008, when presidential elections are to be held.

"We're demanding that free, democratic elections be held within the term determined by the constitution, which is next spring," opposition leader Giorgi Khaindrava, a former minister, told reporters at the rally. “We're not going to demand the president's resignation. We're demanding that he comply with the constitution."

Ready For Dialogue

Authorities say they are ready for dialogue, and parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze and other lawmakers from the ruling majority met with leaders of the opposition today. But on the issue of the elections, Burjanadze and others remained unmoved.

"I'm already confused about what their main demand is, to be honest," Giga Bokeria of the pro-presidential National Movement party said ahead of the talks. "We've said many times that holding [elections] ahead of the set date is not realistic; we don't support it. There are no arguments to support it. The elections are set for a year from now, and that's when they'll take place."

Observers say warnings of full-blown political crisis are premature. But the current protest marks the undeniable advent of an increasingly vocal and well-funded opposition. The movement gained momentum last month, when former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili announced the formation of his own opposition party -- just moments after making sensational accusations that Saakashvili had ordered the murder of political opponents.

Okruashvili was quickly jailed on corruption charges, and was eventually released on bail after a televised retraction. But large-scale demonstrations had already been held on his behalf, and he has become a rallying figure for many in the opposition.

Okruashvili was notably absent from today's demonstration. His lawyer says he was forcibly exiled from the country and sent to France by authorities intent on preventing his participation. Government officials deny the claim, saying the former minister requested the travel abroad for medical treatment.

But other key figures were in attendance at today's protest -- Badri Patarkatsishvili, one of the richest men in Georgia and a onetime associate of Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Patarkatsishvili in recent weeks has emerged as a powerful force behind the Georgian opposition, and if his remarks at the rally are any indication, he intends to stay a player as the country enters election season in 2008. Protesters chanted his name ecstatically as he arrived at the rally and spoke to the crowd.

"I'm not a person with a lot of experience participating in political rallies," he told today's crowd. "I can't make that claim. But I want to tell you that my appearance here today was motivated by my desire to look into your eyes and say, 'People, if Badri Patarkatsishvili has any ambition, it is to be one of the Georgians, one of the citizens of this country, who will build a flourishing, prosperous, and united Georgia.'"

Rising Political Star

Patarkatsishvili -- who recently agreed to cede control of Imedi, his openly antigovernment television station, to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation -- in the past has claimed responsibility for bankrolling the Rose Revolution. Now, however, he says he wants to focus his financial resources on upcoming elections, which he hopes will bring what he calls a "constitutional change in government."

He has described the president as a "de facto usurper who governs the country in the way he wants and shows a democratic facade to the West."

It is not clear whether today's demonstration marks the birth of a new political leader in Georgia. But some commentators say the rally is the demonstration of a long-standing Georgian predilection for pendulum-swing thinking. Political analyst Bakur Kvashilava says even the charismatic Saakashvili has been unable to quell Georgians' traditional taste for seeing extreme shifts in opinion. This, he says, is the key to understanding how a political regime brought to power by a popular revolution four years ago can now be the target of a large-scale protest movement.

"Ninety percent of Georgian voters are in fact swing voters -- people who, all 90 percent of them, vote for one party one time, and then vote for a completely different party the next," Kvashilava said. "The post-Soviet experience has shown that Georgians see things only two ways -- things are either entirely good, or entirely evil."

Saakashvili still enjoys considerable support in Georgia, and few observers anticipate the new opposition will spell his political demise. If anything, today's rally is a test of the government's mettle in handling large-scale public protests.

Bokeria, for one, was quick to dismiss charges that police were blocking protesters from entering the city. "Georgia is a democratic country," he said. "And rallies are a normal thing here."

Georgia's Road To The West
Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze giving a presentation at RFE/RL's Prague broadcasting center (RFE/RL)

BETWEEN RUSSIA AND THE WEST: Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze told an RFE/RL briefing that her country is under intense pressure from Russia.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 55 minutes):
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