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Analysis: Can Georgia Form An Effective Opposition?

Saakashvilli (file photo) It took Mikheil Saakashvili a little over two years from the time he resigned as justice minister in the late summer of 2001 to emerge as the leader of an opposition alignment that succeeded in tapping popular disaffection with the corrupt and inept Georgian leadership and forcing the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Numerous prominent members of the former leadership are now disgraced or in pretrial custody. But a handful of them have recently joined forces with other opposition bodies with the aim of duplicating Saakashvili's success by precipitating the ouster of what they term a government of "dilettantes" and holding pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections.

In December 2004, former parliamentarian Irakli Batiashvili (who served in the early 1990s as head of Georgian intelligence, and later chaired the parliament Defense and Security Committee) and former Imereti Governor Temur Shashiashvili (who ran unsuccessfully against Saakashvili in the January 2004 presidential ballot), announced the establishment of a new opposition party named Forward, Georgia! that Batiashvili said will fight what he termed "attempts to impose authoritarian rule" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004).
"We shall unite every healthy opposition [force] and launch intensive activities against the government."

In the less than three months since its foundation, Forward, Georgia! has attracted several other prominent former officials, including former National Bank Chairman Nodar Djavakhishvili and economist Gia Maisashvili. A former close asssociate of Saakashvili, Maisashvili split with him in early 2004 and subsequently founded an NGO named Government of the Future (MM). Maisashvili spent the second half of 2004 lecturing in the United States. He returned to Tbilisi in late December and announced his intention to try to unite "healthy political forces" to get rid of a government he branded as ambitious, stupid, and incompetent. In mid-February, Maisashvili expressed sympathy with Forward, Georga! and its objectives, but he added that it was too early to consider aligning with it.

In late February, the leaders of Forward, Georgia! and opposition Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili held initial consultations with Maisashvili, former National Bank Chairman Nodar Djavakhishvili, and former Socialist Party leader Zakari Kutsnashvili on the prospects for uniting to create a single opposition movement, Caucasus Press reported on 1 March. A second round of discussions followed on 2 March. Natelashvili told journalists after those talks that the opposition will unite behind the idea of forcing the present government to resign by using exclusively peaceful and constitutional means, according to But he said that the various opposition parties and movements would not establish a formal alliance to that end.

On 16 March, Natelashvili, Maisashvili and Batiashvili met at the editorial office of the "Georgian Times" and subsequently announced the creation of a "coordinating center" that will work to bring about regime change. "We shall unite every healthy opposition [force] and launch intensive activities against the government. From now on, there are two poles in Georgia, the government and the opposition," quoted "Georgian Times" Director Malkhaz Gulashvili as saying. Natelashvili told journalists that a formal announcement of the coordinating center's creation and objectives will be issued within days. Whether it will prove as effective in galvanizing popular discontent as Saakashvili's National Movement remains to be seen. Saakashvili remains by far the most popular political figure in Georgia, with an approval rating of just over 60 percent, according to the newspaper "Kviris palitra" on 17 January. Natelashvili ranked second with 6 percent, and Maisashvili in fourth place (after parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze) with 3.3 percent. Moreover, the new alignment does not have any representation in parliament -- a handicap that Saakashvili did not have to contend with when he embarked on his opposition activities in late 2001.

Meanwhile, a second former close associate of Saakashvili, Conservative Party co-leader Koba Davitashvili (whose efforts to create his own opposition parliamentary faction have so far proven unsuccessful) has expressed his readiness for dialogue with the anticipated Labor Party/Forward, Georgia! alliance, the daily "Akhali taoba" reported on 4 March. But Davitashvili ruled out the possibility of his party joining that alliance.