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Georgia: Opposition Unveils Political Manifesto

Irakli Okruashvili may be out of the picture, but the ripples from his attack on the president continue to be felt (ITAR-TASS) October 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili's sensational televised retraction on October 8 of the accusations he leveled against President Mikheil Saakashvili two weeks earlier may have shocked the Georgian opposition that had rallied to protest his September 27 arrest. But Okruashvili's subsequent announcement that he is abandoning politics, at least for the time being, does not appear to have had any measurable impact on the momentum for political change for which his arrest served as catalyst.

On October 17, the 10 opposition parties aligned in the National Council unveiled a joint manifesto that repeats many of the criticisms of the Saakashvili regime expressed on September 25 by Okruashvili. It characterizes the social, political, and economic situation in Georgia as "grave," accuses Saakashvili and his "corrupt team" of "usurping power," and claims that "political terror...reigns, and basic human rights and freedoms are neglected." It calls for the consolidation of Georgian society to elect in free and fair elections in the spring of 2008 a new leadership that would enjoy public trust and prove capable of tackling the serious problems the country faces. It further enumerated 12 "fundamental principles" to which the 10 signatories pledged to adhere.

Those principles are holding democratic elections without interference from state institutions; creating a European-style system of checks and balances between the branches of power; ensuring the independence of the judiciary; restoring Georgia's territorial integrity by peaceful means; strengthening local self-government and abolishing the post of presidential representative introduced by Saakashvili; releasing all political prisoners and launching an investigation into high-profile crimes committed under President Eduard Shevardnadze and Saakashvili, including the deaths of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1993 and of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania in February 2005; guaranteeing media freedom; strengthening property rights and compensating those whose property was summarily confiscated under Saakashvili; promoting a free business climate, attracting investment, and creating new jobs; providing adequate financial support for the more disadvantaged segments of the population; ending state interference into the affairs of the Georgian church; and pursuing a pro-Western foreign policy that would include Georgia's disengagement from the Commonwealth of Independent States. The manifesto did not, however, explicitly advocate the abolition of the presidency. "Georgia Without Saakashvili" was one of the slogans under which Georgians initially flocked to protest Okruashvili's arrest.

Later on October 17, the opposition addressed a letter to Saakashvili and to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze highlighting its four most crucial demands: that parliamentary elections be held on schedule in spring 2008 (Saakashvili decided last year to postpone them until the fall to be held concurrently with an early presidential ballot, technically not due until early 2009); the creation of new election commissions that would not be monopolized by representatives of Saakashvili's United National Movement; the abolition of the majoritarian election system; and the release of all political prisoners. In an October 22 interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, opposition parliamentarian Kakha Kukava (Conservative party) explained that the National Council's letter was not an "ultimatum" intended to box the president into a corner, but a bid to leave him room to maneuver in a dignified fashion.

Already on October 16, Saakashvili affirmed his readiness for "political dialogue" with the opposition and offered minor concessions, proposing to reduce from 7 to 5 percent the threshold for parliamentary representation under the proportional system and to restrict the president's right to dissolve parliament. ("The Georgian Times" noted on October 22 that Saakashvili's stated rationale for doing so was to ensure that the "weak" opposition won parliamentary representation, rather than risk ending up with a one-party parliament. He did not mention that international organizations have long argued in favor of that reduction.)

Most opposition parties, however, dismissed Saakashvili's offer as too little, too late. The National Council nonetheless selected five representatives to participate in what they insisted should be a public dialogue with Saakashvili, but as of October 23, the State Chancellery had not proposed any date for such talks, the daily "Alia" observed.

Instead of engaging the opposition, the Georgian leadership appears to be banking on buying at least the temporary loyalty of the population at large. On October 17, the government announced that the number of people eligible for a one-off additional aid payment of 100 laris ($61) will be increased from 1.2 million to 2.8 million (of a total population of 4.4 million). At least one economist subsequently expressed concern that the cost of that largesse -- some 100 million laris -- could fuel inflation.

A New Leader Of The Opposition?

On October 18, oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili -- whose political rating Okruashvili said on October 8 his damaging accusations against Saakashvili were intended to boost -- likewise unveiled what he described as his "vision of Georgia's future." Patarkatsishvili expressed regret that the policies pursued by the present Georgian leadership increasingly diverge from that ideal, which he said he first presented to Saakashvili in 2003.

Specifically, Patarkatsishvili's "vision" stresses six priorities: economic independence; restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity; abolition of the post of president and the creation of a bicameral parliament as a means of strengthening and promoting democracy; perfecting the distribution of power between the authorities and society at large in favor of the latter; democratizing foreign policy to balance Georgia's interests vis-a-vis the United States on the one hand and Russia on the other; and ensuring consistency and continuity of policy following the advent to power of a new leadership.

Okruashvili is now widely regarded as having discredited himself totally by his October 8 televised confession, although it remains unclear whether he had been tortured, blackmailed, or was speaking under the influence of drugs, as was clearly the case when former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov was shown on Turkmen television in December 2002 confessing to a plot to assassinate then-President Saparmurat Niyazov. (Okruashvili's erstwhile associate Kukava was quoted by "Khronika" on October 22 as advising him not to show up at the mass opposition demonstration in Tbilisi planned for November 2).

The question therefore arises: who else could unify and mobilize the population to exert pressure on the present leadership? Unconfirmed media reports suggest that Patarkatsishvili, who incurred the anger of the Georgian authorities in March 2006 when he went public with allegations of official corruption and malpractice, may found his own opposition party prior to the November 2 rally and lay claim to that role.

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