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Georgia: Opposition Mulls Options

Despite Western assertions that the procedural violations registered during the January 5 preterm Georgian presidential ballot were not on a scale that could have altered the final outcome, the Georgian opposition still refuses to accept the legitimacy of Mikheil Saakashvili's reelection with a reported 53.47 percent of the vote for a second five-year term.

Having failed to force a runoff between Saakashvili and its own candidate, Levan Gachechiladze, the nine-party opposition National Council is now preparing to appeal the official election results first to the Georgian Constitutional Court and, if that fails, to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. An appeal to Strasbourg is, however, unlikely to be heard before the parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for May.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza met with National Council representatives in Tbilisi on January 20, the eve of Saakashvili's inauguration ceremony. Subsequent statements by the opposition leaders present suggest that Bryza tried, but failed, to induce them to drop their criticisms both of the conduct of the ballot and of the international community's failure unequivocally to condemn the outcome as falsified. He apparently urged them instead to "move on" and focus their attention on the parliamentary poll tentatively scheduled for May. Parliamentarian Levan Berdzenishvili of the opposition Republican party, a member of the National Council, was quoted on January 19 as saying the parliamentary elections would be tantamount to a "second round," meaning that they would clarify the level of popular support for Saakashvili and the government on one hand and the opposition on the other.

Speaking on January 20 at a meeting on the outskirts of Tbilisi attended by up to 70,000 people, Gachechiladze again affirmed, as he had done during a live television address on January 15, that the opposition continues to regard Saakashvili as an illegitimate president, and that its members will not agree to any "compromise" with the authorities, or accept any government posts Saakashvili may offer.

Opposition parliamentarian Zviad Dzidziguri from the Conservative party, which is part of the National Council, for his part told the rally that "we shall not stop, we shall not retreat.... We shall continue our fight every day and every minute to achieve our goal: to deprive Saakashvili of the presidency both de facto and de jure." Tavisupleba (Liberty) party leader Konstantine Gamsakhurdia said "we shall fight to the end until this country is liberated from Saakashvili and the remnants [of his regime]."

On January 15, Gachechiladze said he hopes the National Council will participate in the upcoming parliamentary ballot as "a single, united strong opposition coalition" that would encompass not only the nine-member National Council but also the Labor party, the New Rightists and others. But David Usupashvili of the Republican party, also a member of the National Council, was quoted on January 21 as saying that "it is too early to say whether we will stand in the parliamentary election together." He added that opposition parties will probably decide within the next month between a tactical arrangement of a broad alliance or several alliances, depending on which approach is seen as likely to yield better results. Meanwhile, Gachechiladze on January 21 raised the hypothetical possibility of a boycott, telling journalists that "if the current climate of violence persists, I doubt we shall participate in the parliamentary elections."

Gachechiladze on January 21 further identified the opposition's primary demands as "free elections and free media," and predicted that if the authorities fail to meet those demands, the police and armed forces will defect to the opposition camp and "we shall force Saakashvili to flee the country," reported. At the same time, Gachechiladze stressed that "we shall not allow civil confrontation to take place; we will never let bloodshed occur." Usupashvili similarly warned on January 21 that a popular uprising is "inevitable" if the authorities seek to falsify the upcoming parliamentary elections the same way as they did the presidential poll.

Saakashvili for his part continues to downplay the opposition allegations that the election outcome was rigged to give him victory in the first round, telling "The New Times" that "It's a typical Georgian pastime -- this penchant for being overly dramatic and kicking up a fuss."