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Georgia: Hunger Strike Continues, As Opposition Demands Remain Firm

Hunger strikers camped out in front of the parliament building in downtown Tbilisi (InterPressNews) The bitter political standoff in Georgia is showing no signs of abating despite increased pressure on the government to bow to opposition demands as a hunger strike enters its 12th day.

A group of more than 60 opposition activists are continuing to reject food in order to press their call for changes to the country's electoral system ahead of a key parliamentary poll in May.

The hunger-striking activists have set up tents on the square outside Georgia's parliament, while a handful of activists are camped inside the legislature, in the lobby of parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze's office.

"The dialogue was never severed, we have never reduced our efforts to bring our positions into line, and we are open to negotiations now, too," Burjanadze told reporters on March 20 in an effort to ease tensions. "There are a number of issues where it is extremely important to take different points of view into account, in order for these to be reflected in future legislation."

Burjanadze has dismissed calls for her resignation, saying she will step down only if the protesters drop all other demands.

The opposition is demanding more airtime on state television and changes in the electoral system ahead of parliamentary elections in two months. It is also calling on the government to allow the independent television channel Imedi back on air to create conditions for a fair election campaign. Imedi broadcasts were halted on November 7 after President Mikheil Saakashvili deployed police to crack down on opposition protests and imposed a state of emergency.

The current standoff emerged after parliament approved fresh changes in the electoral law increasing the proportion of deputies elected under a system of single-mandate districts.

The opposition fiercely opposes the bill, which it views as an attempt by Saakashvili to extend his control over parliament. The single-mandate system tends to favor pro-government candidates, while opposition candidates tend to be more successful under proportional representation by party lists.

Saakashvili won reelection with a first-round majority after he called an early presidential election in January in the wake of the public unrest.

But with opponents refusing to acknowledge Saakashvili's election victory, many observers regard Georgia as more divided than at any time since the 2003 Rose Revolution.

Getting Serious

The hunger strikers appear determined not to cede ground, and several protesters have already been hospitalized.

Political analyst Soso Tsiskarishvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the government must take action.

"The ball in now in the authorities' court, because they know very well about the opposition's demands," Tsiskarishvili said. "At one point, they seemed ready to open negotiations on these demands. If they meet at least some of them, I'm confident it will be possible to restore the dialogue format."

Saakashvili, during an official visit to Washington, on March 18 offered a compromise on the bill by proposing to increase the number of lawmakers in parliament. But that proposal runs counter to a 2003 referendum in which the population voted to reduce the number of deputies from 235 to 150.

"We have a decision that was made by the Georgian people. This number has been determined and this doesn't leave us any space to act," Tina Khidasheli, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Party, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "Our country's parliament will consist of 150 deputies; this was decided by a huge majority of Georgians. There is no time for any more constitutional changes. This government has a history of working miracles, so maybe they'll succeed this time again. But we will take no part in this."

During talks with government officials this week, the Republican Party offered to replace single-mandate constituencies with multiple-mandate constituencies in order to harmonize the two different parliamentary election systems.

A statement by the Georgian Orthodox Church's respected Patriarch, Ilya II, on March 20 raised hopes of an early end to the standoff. He called on the opposition to halt the hunger strike and urged all sides to return to the negotiation table.

But after meeting the patriarch the same day, opposition leaders said the hunger strike would continue until authorities agreed to modify the electoral system.

The ruling party, in turn, said it would not consider the opposition's demands unless it called off the protest.

Gigi Ugulava, Tbilisi's mayor and a close ally of Saakashvili, said the opposition's refusal to end the hunger strike demonstrated a lack of respect for the patriarch.