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Georgia: Opposition, Parliament Majority Embark On Talks

On January 29, 12 Georgian opposition parties unveiled a memorandum addressed to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze affirming their shared belief that the outcome of the January 5 preterm presidential election was totally falsified and rejecting the legitimacy of Mikheil Saakashvili's reelection, Caucasus Press and reported.

The memorandum further listed 17 measures it considers essential to overcome the current "political crisis" and ensure that the parliamentary elections to be held in early summer are free and fair. Opposition representatives have since met twice with Burjanadze and once with other members of the parliament majority to discuss those demands. Meanwhile, on January 31, Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze outlined to parliament his government's program for the next five years, the primary focus of which is eradicating the poverty that has alienated tens of thousands of Georgians who three years ago hoped Mikheil Saakashvili's election as president would herald a significant approval in their material circumstances.

The opposition demands focus largely on the shortcomings that marred the January 5 pre-term ballot in which, according to official returns, Saakashvili was reelected for a second term with over 53 percent of the vote. The nine-party opposition National Council remains convinced that the outcome was rigged to preclude a second round runoff between Saakashvili and their candidate, businessman Levan Gachechiladze.

The demands include a recount in the presence of international observers of the votes cast in the January 5 ballot and the investigation of procedural violations committed during the vote; the release of all persons arrested fin the wake of the November 7 police crackdown on demonstrators in Tbilisi; the resignation of controversial Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili; measures to guarantee media freedom, including the inclusion on a parity basis of opposition nominees in the new supervisory board of Georgian Public Television; scheduling parliamentary elections before the current parliament's mandate expires in April, and elections for a new parliament in the Adjar Republic in July; a ban on participation by the president in the parliamentary election campaign; and drafting a new election law and measures to preclude manipulation of the findings of exit polls.

The memorandum was signed by three defeated presidential candidates: Gachechiladze; New Rightists leader David Gamkrelidze; and Party of the Future Chairman Gia Maisashvili; the heads of the other parties aligned in the National Council; and Industry Will Save Georgia. The Labor Party, whose chairman Shalva Natelashvili ran separately in the presidential election, declined to sign the memorandum on the grounds that it has its own "independent strategy," reported. The signatories set a deadline of February 14, after which, if those demands are not met, the opposition will stage "permanent protest rallies," Gachechiladze warned on January 28. President Saakashvili commented on January 30 that some of the opposition's demands were unacceptable, while others were negotiable; he did not say which demands fell into which category.

Opposition representatives met for between three and four hours with Burjanadze on February 1 and reportedly discussed all 17 points listed in the memorandum. Caucasus Press quoted opposition representative Giorgi Tsagareishvili as saying "today's meeting showed that the authorities have learned to talk to the opposition. That was a pleasant surprise for us." Parliament deputy speaker Mikheil Machavariani similarly said that "this meeting demonstrated that agreement can be achieved on many issues with the opposition." "The Messenger" on February 4 quoted parliamentarian Kakha Kukava (Conservative party) as saying that the government did not agree to any "serious concessions." But Zurab Tqemaladze of the Industrialists' parliament faction said that the two sides agreed to form two working groups; one will probe the circumstances of the November 7 police crackdown, while the second will draft new election legislation, Rustavi-2 reported.

Even before the follow-up meeting, scheduled for February 5, opposition parliamentarian Zviad Dzidziguri (Conservative party) announced on February 4 the launch of an opposition action to collect signatures from voters prepared to affirm that they did not cast their ballots for Saakashvili on January 5. And in apparent violation of the proposed moratorium on opposition demonstrations, he also announced a protest meeting to be held on February 7. Burjanadze told journalists on February 4 that she considers a resumption of protests both incomprehensible and an attempt to pressure the authorities, and she appealed to the opposition to "continue working constructively" instead. But "The Messenger" on February 6 quoted David Zurabishvili of the Republican Party as vowing that the protests will continue. He argued that demonstrations show that the population at large shares and supports the opposition's demands and thus strengthen the opposition's position in the ongoing dialogue with the authorities.

Also on February 4, opposition leaders met to prepare for the resumption on February 5 of discussions with Burjanadze and decide which of the 17 demands should be addressed, Black Sea Press reported. The independent television channel Mze quoted National Council member Giorgi Tsagareishvili as explaining that "this does not concern all the demands. During the talks tomorrow we will focus on several crucial demands and if these demands are not satisfied, the opposition may even take a certain hiatus in the negotiating process."

As it turned out, the February 5 talks apparently brought the two sides' positions closer on some issues, but failed to yield "tangible results." Among the issues on which tentative agreement was reached, according to on February 5 quoting Tina Khidasheli of the Republican party, were abolishing the first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system for electing majoritarian MPs, and amending the constitution to require that the cabinet resign automatically after parliamentary elections. Koba Davitashvili (People's Party) complained that the talks were being "artificially prolonged." He explained that compliance those demands will require amendments to existing legislation, which will take time, while the authorities declined to agree to issues that could be resolved immediately, such as the dismissal of Georgian Public Television General Director Tamar Kintsurashvili and of Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili, and the release of all those arrested in the wake of the November 7 police intervention. Kukava was similarly quoted by as saying "there are promises, but no concrete steps are being taken;" Rustavi-2 on February 5 screened footage of Kukava predicting that "I think it will be very difficult to continue the dialogue within this format, when no concrete results are in sight." The next round of talks is scheduled for February 11.

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