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Georgia: Political Parties Draw Battle Lines As Opposition Leaders Disagree On Strategy

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Georgia's political landscape is becoming increasingly polarized as one of the country's main opposition parties continues to press for President Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation. The Georgian president, in turn, has secured the support of Aslan Abashidze, the leader of the southern republic of Adjaria, as well as a number of opposition groups. There also seems to be a burgeoning rift among Shevardnadze's opponents as to which strategy fits best their objective.

Prague, 11 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze yesterday gained support from the southern autonomous republic of Adjaria in his standoff with radical opposition leaders over last week's disputed parliamentary election.

Shevardnadze made a rare trip to Batumi, the capital of Adjaria, to discuss the political situation with regional leader Aslan Abashidze. Earlier in the day, he met with supporters and authorities in Senaki, a small city in Georgia's western region of Samegrelo, or Mingrelia.

Upon his return to Tbilisi late yesterday, Shevardnadze said he was satisfied with his talks with Abashidze. "I am pleased in the utmost that the population and the leadership [of Adjaria] -- be it Aslan Abashidze or other officials -- all say they are ready to fight along with the whole of Georgia to maintain the country's unity and strength," he said.

Earlier that day, Shevardnadze was given an ovation by thousands of cheering Batumi residents in the city's stadium -- far more than daily opposition rallies have been able to muster in Tbilisi since the 2 November polls.

Standing next to Shevardnadze on a large stage erected for the occasion, Abashidze once again urged the Georgian president not to yield to pressure from his opponents, whom he accused of driving Georgia back to its 1992 civil war. "It is our duty, our historical duty, to stand by [Georgia's] legitimate government and defend it today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow so that the next generation will not engage on the same wrong path [as its predecessors did earlier] and our country will not suffer again such hard blows," he said. "We should not sacrifice the interests of our country to the ambition of [political] forces which, with the support of their newspapers or television channels, are calling day and night for civil confrontation in Georgia."

Although technically in the opposition, Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union has often collaborated with Shevardnadze's government in the past. Some analysts believe that, despite their conflicting personal relationship, both men long ago struck a deal whereby Shevardnadze would not try to reassert Tbilisi's control over Adjaria, in return for Revival's support in the national parliament.

Returns released yesterday by Georgia's Central Election Commission showed that with more than 95 percent of the ballots counted, Revival came second in last week's election with nearly 19 percent of the votes, just behind the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia coalition.

The National-Movement-Democratic Front (EMDP) of Tbilisi City Council Chairman and former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili came third with 18 percent of the vote, followed by two other opposition groups -- the left-wing Labor Party with 12 percent and the coalition led by parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze at 8 percent.

No other parties have overcome the 7 percent barrier required to enter the legislature. More than half (150) of Georgia's 235 lawmakers are elected from party lists under a proportional system, with the remaining being elected from single-mandate constituencies under a majoritarian system.

Saakashvili and Burdjanadze say the election was fraudulent. Citing exit polls, they claim the National Movement came first with 27 percent of the ballots and that the Burdjanadze-Democrats coalition won more than 10 percent of the vote.

While admitting to numerous irregularities, authorities have denied allegations of massive fraud. Independent observers have found no evidence that pro-Shevardnadze candidates stole the election.

The Central Election Commission yesterday ordered an election rerun in 27 of Georgia's 2,800 polling stations.

But radical opposition leaders in Tbilisi refuse to back down and are vowing to stage daily protests in front of parliament until Shevardnadze "admits defeat."

Speaking to reporters last night, Saakashvili ridiculed the president's trip to Mingrelia and Adjaria as a display aimed at pretending he enjoys wide support among the Georgian population. "Shevardnadze today met with cows in Senaki, then with goats in Batumi," he said. "He also met there with a few hundreds peasants whom Abashidze had brought from [Adjaria's] Khulo district and who were not informed about the situation."

Late on 9 November, Shevardnadze met Saakashvili and other radical opposition leaders in his Krtsanisi residence, outside Tbilisi, in a bid to defuse the crisis. But the talks ended inconclusively, with Saakashvili abruptly leaving the negotiation table after he advised the Georgian leader to step down as Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic did in 2000.

Saakashvili has since indicated he does not want to enter into further negotiations with the government, arguing that Shevardnadze's resignation is the only way to avert violence.

Former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, a leading member of the Burdjanadze-Democrats coalition, is also calling for Shevardnadze to step down, blaming the Georgian leader for failing to take action over alleged mass election fraud.

Other opposition leaders, however, sound less confrontational. Talking to reporters yesterday, parliament speaker Burdjanadze said she will continue to seek dialogue with the president. "How can the crisis be overcome if there are no concrete proposals [on the part of the president]? We are ready for the continuation of dialogue, although it is hard to imagine how Saakashvili and Shevardnadze can continue their dialogue after yesterday's incident [when the talks ended abruptly]," she said. "However, I still believe we can maintain some form of dialogue and exchange of opinions because we have to find a way out of the crisis."

Burdjanadze today joined protesters in front of parliament. Although she had earlier said she would not recognize the validity of the vote, whatever the final results, she reiterated that she is ready to strike a compromise with the Georgian president. "It is very difficult to make any prediction at the moment, but I would like to stress again that we are for dialogue," she said. "To continue our protest movement is not an end in itself. To heighten tension is not an end in itself either. On the contrary, our objective is to defuse tension and bring the country back to normal life. But this will not be done at the expense of our nation's honor and interests."

Meanwhile, other opposition leaders are further dissociating themselves from Saakashvili and his allies. New Rightists Party leader Davit Gamkrelidze yesterday said Saakashvili and Burdjanadze are pursuing "personal and conflicting" agendas. Gamkrelidze, whose party is under the 7 percent threshold, also said he will not take part in what he described as Saakashvili's planned "revolution" to overthrow Shevardnadze. The opposition Labor Party and Industry Will Save Georgia bloc have voiced similar criticism.

Tsotne Bakuria, the head of Revival's Tbilisi branch, yesterday said his party had sealed a pro-government alliance with Labor and the Industrialists. His claims, however, could not be independently confirmed.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili's supporters today entered the fourth day of a protest vigil in front of the Georgian parliament, on Tbilisi's main street. Yesterday, Saakashvili said lawmakers from his party would start a protest fast inside parliament. Representatives of the Burdjanadze-Democrats coalition were originally due to join the movement but, by mid-afternoon today, only two National Movement deputies, Lado Chipashvili and Giorgi Kheviashvili, were refusing to take food.
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