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Georgia: Focus Of Political Turmoil Shifting To Parliamentary Vote

Saakashvili: Cooperation and dialogue, please (NATO) It may be too much to expect Georgia's newly energized opposition to immediately strike a deal on cooperating with its rivals in Mikheil Saakashvili's government. But at the very least, the two sides are finally talking.

Formally, the opposition is continuing to protest irregularities in the country's January 5 presidential vote. Official results handed Saakashvili a narrow first-round victory of 53 percent.

"[Our fight is contained] within the framework of the constitution," says united opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze, who came in second in the race with 25 percent of the vote. "We won't let all of this develop into a civic confrontation. But the protests and the nonrecognition of this government will continue."

Informally, however, it's clear that a recount is now highly unlikely. Behind the scenes, negotiations have turned to issues that may serve the opposition well as it seeks to level the playing field ahead of the next major contest -- parliamentary elections in the spring.

Media Access

Opposition leaders appeared to score their first major victory on January 15, gaining the right to participate in forming a new board of trustees at Georgia's public broadcaster.

Election observers and opposition candidates alike had complained that Saakashvili had received the lion's share of media coverage ahead of the vote. With a new, more diverse oversight at the country's main broadcaster, that is likely to change.

The opposition has hailed the decision and vowed to push for further such agreements. Possible changes include revisions of how the Central Election Commission is staffed.

Government representatives, meanwhile, reject the opposition's characterization of such deals as "concessions," saying open political dialogue is the main priority.

"Dialogue, in any form, means strength," says Pavle Kublashvili, an influential lawmaker from Saakashvili's National Movement party. "If a political team demonstrates readiness for dialogue in relation to any process, I would say this shows the team's political maturity."

Tbilisi's New Tone

Cooperation and dialogue is the new central message in the Saakashvili camp, as the once-invincible president gingerly approaches his second term in office.

Western diplomats have also dedicated energy to nudging the famously single-minded leader toward the negotiating table. For opposition coalition member Tina Khidasheli, the West has already failed Georgia once by hastily endorsing Saakashvili's win before rigging claims had time to be investigated.

"It is very regrettable that in this particular case -- and not, I hope, in the long term -- the statements by diplomatic bodies in Georgia do not have any credibility," she says. "They rushed in and started congratulating Saakashvili with victory very prematurely."

The opposition has held meetings with U.S. and European Union officials in a futile attempt to demand a recount. But the meetings are also an opportunity for Western officials to better acquaint themselves with what may prove a major new force to be reckoned with in Georgian politics.

Analyst Bakur Kvashilava says if the opposition secures a parliamentary majority this spring, it will have great historical significance for Georgia's political development.

"Georgia's political culture will be radically altered," he says. "For the very first time, the executive and legislative branches would really be independent from each other, and the country would actually be able to put a system of checks and balances to work."

Friend Of The Opposition?

Another interested party is Georgia's neighbor to the north. Moscow has made no secret of its hostility toward Saakashvili and his pro-Western aims; the Georgian president's relatively poor finish in the recent elections have no doubt been met with satisfaction in the Kremlin.

Russia, like the West, may be looking to find allies within the opposition to strengthen its influence in the Georgia. The degree of Russian involvement in the current negotiations remains, largely, a subject of speculation. Kvashilava, however, says it would be surprising to find members of the opposition willing to openly strike a deal with Moscow.

"I think Russia is in a beneficial position right now, because for a foreign player like Russia, a weaker Georgian government automatically means a weaker country. This is always the case," he says. "But I would say that in Georgia, any political force which would say that alignment with Russia is better than alignment with the West will not be able to support this argument in front of its electorate. It's impossible to support this point; Russia itself prevents this from being possible. But this, of course, does not exclude the possibility that Russia is benefiting from this confrontation [in Georgia]."

Changing Alliances

Several factors remain to be clarified in the months ahead of Georgia's parliamentary vote.

One is the fate of Saakashvili's National Movement party. Some observers have speculated that the president -- who has already promised a cabinet shake-up -- will subject his party to a spring cleaning as well, inviting in new personalities and marginalizing those whose popularity is on the wane.

The second, and perhaps more important, question is whether the opposition -- which currently groups a wide spectrum of political programs and ideologies -- will succeed in remaining a unified coalition, or will split up to run on different party lists.

Current coalition leaders, including Gachechiladze, have refused to discuss future plans, saying that changes to the overall election environment are of greater importance.

"It's now very important for the country to develop in a way that will make it possible to hold parliamentary elections in a normal environment," he says. "Time will tell if this is happening."

Some analysts, Kvashilava among them, say that while Gachechiladze may have appealed to some segments of the public with his emphasis on tradition, a plainspoken style, and a certain masculine bravado, these features may render him unsuitable for leading a parliamentary faction.

Uneasy Allies

The united opposition coalition, in its current form, ranges from the veteran Republican Party, which includes Soviet-era dissidents and other prominent pro-democracy advocates, to the populist and nationalist Conservative and People's parties.

It also rests on the strength of several individual players with varying degrees of popularity and influence -- a group that includes not only Gachechiladze, but also former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili and Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, the son of the country's first post-Soviet president, who until recently was a political unknown in Georgia.

Analyst Kvashilava predicts the opposition will remain united until the parliamentary elections, but may disperse into separate factions once the ballot is over. Despite the opposition's current influence, Kvashilava says, it's premature to look at the group as a significant political bloc -- although the opportunity is definitely there.

"The majority of votes won by the opposition weren't because of their platforms. These votes were cast as an expression of the public's protest against the government," he says. "I wouldn't say the opposition has already formed into a weighty political force. But they certainly can become such force, if they succeed in channeling the mass turmoil into stable support among the electorate."

Plans, meanwhile, are under way for Saakashvili's second-term inauguration, due to be held in the historic city of Kutaisi on January 20. The opposition, hoping to drain the ceremony of at least some of its pomp, has vowed to stage protest demonstrations the same day.

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