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Georgian Opposition Gears Up For New Protests

Opposition leaders Levan Gachechiladze (left) and Nino Burjanadze

Opposition leaders Levan Gachechiladze (left) and Nino Burjanadze

November 6 is the second anniversary of a brutal police crackdown in Tbilisi on demonstrators who had for days picketed the parliament building to demand early parliamentary elections and the release of persons they considered political prisoners.

Over the past several weeks, Georgian media have discussed the possibility that the opposition will launch a new wave of protests on November 7 to demand the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili. But with opposition parties divided over tactics and strategy, the likely impact remains unclear.

In early April, virtually all influential opposition parties joined forces to convene repeated protest demonstrations in Tbilisi and other cities to demand that Saakashvili step down and schedule early elections.

But that campaign gradually lost momentum, partly due to internal disagreements which Saakashvili sought to exploit. Having repeatedly stated that he intends to serve out his entire second term, which ends in January 2013, he met on May 11 with four moderate opposition leaders and offered concessions on other political issues.

Then one month later, on June 9, Saakashvili met with Levan Gachechiladze, his closest defeated rival in the January 2008 presidential ballot, and offered opposition figures several deputy ministerial posts. Days later, police clashed outside the Interior Ministry with protesters: 39 people were arrested and several protesters injured. On July 9, only some 1,500 people turned up for a demonstration to mark three months since the campaign to force Saakashvili's resignation got under way.

Will opposition protesters occupy downtown Tbilisi again, as they did in April?
On October 14, opposition leaders met in Tbilisi to discuss tactics, but reached agreement only on not working at cross-purposes, but not on a coordinated course of action. The more radical wing, which comprises former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-United Georgia and former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili's Movement for a United Georgia, continues to advocate street protests to demand that Saakashvili resign and schedule an early presidential ballot.

The more moderate faction, including the Alliance for Georgia, the Republican Party and the Conservative Party, intends instead to focus on the municipal elections due in May 2010. Alliance for Georgia head Irakli Alasania has already announced that he plans to run for the post of Tbilisi mayor. Alasania reasoned on October 14 that "if we win in the capital, it will be an indication that change is possible and that a transition of power is under way."

The third major player within the opposition, the National Forum, for its part sees no point in participating in local elections, and will continue trying to mobilize support outside Tbilisi. The party has also floated the idea of forming a parallel government.

The forum already has considerable support in Tbilisi and among the younger generation, not least because its leaders, Zhiuli Shartava and Gubaz Sanikidze, are not perceived as compromised by any past association with the present Georgian leadership. Shartava and Sanikidze were elected to parliament in May 2008, but rejected their mandates to protest the perceived rigging of the outcome of that election.

Despite confusion over which and how many parties would participate, Eka Beselia of the Movement for a United Georgia formally informed the Tbilisi authorities on October 30 that a protest is planned on November 7. On October 29, she had said "almost all" party leaders had signaled that they would participate, and predicted that the entire opposition would demonstrate unanimity, regardless of party divisions. She said the November 7 demonstration would be followed by further protest actions, but not on a daily basis.

But Republican Party political secretary Levan Berdzenishvili was quoted on October 29 as saying it is not clear whether a mass meeting, as opposed to a commemoration of the crackdown two years ago, will indeed take place on November 7, and if it does, which parties will participate.

Greens party leader Gachechiladze (no relation to Levan) similarly said on October 31 that his party still has not decided whether or not to join the anticipated new wave of protests.

Political commentator Emil Adelkhanov expressed skepticism in mid-October with regard to the planned renewed protests, saying he doubts whether they will have any effect on the country's leadership. One month earlier, posted a detailed analysis of the political situation that revealed how Saakashvili's United National Movement has already established offices in provincial towns and is lobbying intensively to win the hearts and minds of the population in the run-up to the municipal elections next May.

On November 6, the organizers of the November 7 protest addressed an appeal to U.S. Ambassador John Bass, pointing out that more than three months after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's July visit to Tbilisi, the Georgian authorities have still not made any progress towards fulfilling the democratization requirements of the strategic partnership agreement signed in January. They warn that the Georgian leadership's "authoritarian" approach is inexorably bringing the country closer to mass destabilization, which poses a "real threat" to the Georgian people's collective aspiration to build a society based on western democratic values.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.