It is still too early to predict the outcome of the ongoing standoff in Tbilisi between embattled Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and opposition supporters demanding his resignation.
The opposition responded on April 10 to Saakashvili's failure to step down by the deadline (3 p.m. local time) they set the previous day by vowing to continue protest actions until he bows to the "will of the people." They also announced the start of a campaign of civil disobedience, beginning in Tbilisi, and that would be extended to the rest of Georgia, Caucasus Press reported.
Whether the opposition enjoys sufficient support nationwide to achieve this is questionable, however. Estimates of the numbers of people who participated in the April 9 demonstrations in Tbilisi diverge wildly, from 25,000 to 150,000. Nor is it clear in how many other cities parallel protests took place, although former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli's Movement for a Just Georgia reportedly organized a successful protest in his hometown of Batumi.
Regardless of whether the opposition protests gather momentum or fizzle out (and it should be remembered that the November 2003 Rose Revolution took place three weeks after the November 2 parliamentary elections, the results of which then-President Eduard Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia bloc tried frantically to finagle to give it the desired majority), several aspects of the events of the past 48 hours deserve noting.
First is the extent to which the Georgian leadership has treated the opposition challenge as a contest less for the hearts and minds of the Georgian electorate than for those of the international community. In the run-up to the protests, the authorities launched an unprecedented public-relations campaign intended to create the impression, first, that the opposition was acting irresponsibly by rejecting offers of dialogue and thus threatening destabilization at a time of economic crisis; and second, that the authorities by contrast were acting responsibly and in such a way as to prevent the violence they implied the opposition was prepared to unleash. The partial success of that PR effort is reflected in the statements released on the eve of the protest by the U.S. State Department, the Czech EU presidency, and Western embassies in Tbilisi calling on both sides to exercise moderation and restraint and not to resort to violence.
President Saakashvili played up the authorities' exemplary response in "protecting, ensuring, and defending the people's fundamental right to demonstrate peacefully" in his public statement in Tbilisi on April 10 shortly before the opposition deadline for him to step down expired. (He did not, incidentally, make any mention of that demand in his statement.)
Specifically, Saakashvili sought to portray the Interior Ministry, widely regarded as above and beyond the law (four of its staffers were recently released from jail after serving only half the prison terms handed down to them for the brutal murder of a young banker in January 2006), as a beacon of transparency and democracy.
Second, and related to the above, is Saakashvili's statement of April 8 in an interview with euobserver.com implicitly ruling out a seizure of power by the opposition. That scenario, Saakashvili argued, is impossible without "cracks in the military and police and a political crisis in parliament." In light of that affirmation, any subsequent attempt by Saakashvili to blame rising pressure on him on a conspiracy orchestrated by Moscow, as he did in the wake of the November 2007 standoff, will ring hollow.
Third is the relative levels of support that individual opposition leaders enjoy. The Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on April 10 that businessman Levan Gachechiladze, who according to official returns placed second to Saakashvili in the January 2008 presidential ballot as the candidate backed by an alliance of nine opposition parties, received a tumultuous reception. Gachechiladze does not have a political power base of his own, but he signed in his own right the "Manifesto of Unity" adopted on March 27 by the 13 opposition parties that jointly sponsored the April 9 protest.
By contrast, only a few hundred people opted to accompany former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who headed one of three groups of protesters who converged on the parliament building from separate venues elsewhere in the city. And when Burjanadze began to address the protesters, she was interrupted by whistling and catcalls, which she attributed to her failure in her capacity as parliament speaker unequivocally to condemn the brutal crackdown on mostly peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi in November 2007. On that occasion the demonstrators were protesting alleged official corruption, mismanagement, and economic stagnation and demanding early elections.
That clear public disenchantment with Burjanadze, whom some observers considered just a few months ago a serious challenger in the event that Saakashvili agreed to an early presidential ballot, suggests that the mass arrests last month of members of her Democratic Movement for a United Georgia, some of whom have been accused of seeking to overthrow the government by force, were either unnecessary or served their intended purpose of discrediting her.