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Georgia: Opposition Challenges Shevardnadze Ahead Of Autumn Elections

A political battle is gaining momentum in the South Caucasus republic of Georgia ahead of parliamentary elections in November. A dispute pitting supporters of President Eduard Shevardnadze against his opponents has focused on the composition of the country's main election body. With no breakthrough in sight after weeks of negotiations with the government, Georgia's opposition yesterday decided to step up the pressure.

Prague, 4 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A divisive atmosphere is brewing in Georgia, where government supporters and the political opposition have clashed ahead of parliamentary elections this autumn (2 November).

Up to 5,000 opposition activists -- many of them students -- yesterday gathered on the main street of the Georgian capital Tbilisi to demand that the Central Election Commission be replaced and a new election law be adopted before the November poll.

Holding banners reading "Georgia, wake up" and "Stop falsifying elections," the demonstrators called for the ouster of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and later staged an unsanctioned sit-in in front of the parliament building. The gathering broke up only after nightfall.

Opposition leaders say smaller protests were also staged in Zugdidi, Sagarejo, Gurjaani, Marneuli, and Kutaisi. No unrest was reported.

Among the Tbilisi demonstrators was Zurab Zhvania, a former Shevardnadze ally who now chairs the United Democrats opposition coalition. Speaking to reporters, Zhvania said the protestors had one demand.

"All we are demanding is fair elections and a fair election law," he said.

Mikhail Saakashvili, the head of the United National Movement opposition group and chairman of the Tbilisi City Council, said the protests will continue until the government agrees to a compromise.

"Concretely speaking, we want each single political force to be granted equal representation [in the Central Election Commission] so that no one will be in a position to falsify the election results. It is as simple as that."

Pro-government representatives currently dominate the 19-member Central Election Commission, whose chairman is appointed by Shevardnadze.

The government proposes that the new commission be composed of representatives of only those parties that overcame the 7-percent threshold required to enter parliament in the 1999 legislative poll, or garnered more than 4 percent of votes in last year's local elections. In addition, authorities propose that the president appoint three members of the new, enlarged commission.

But the opposition says such a scheme would favor the ruling elite. It is demanding that seats on the election commission be granted on a parity basis, and that commission members elect a chairman rather than leaving Shevardnadze to appoint one.

Reports emerged during yesterday's opposition sit-in that election commission chairman Jumber Lominadze and nine other commission members had handed in their resignations.

The reports have not been confirmed. Even if they are true, it is unclear whether they would be sufficient to cause the total dissolution of the commission.

Opposition parties had long threatened to stage peaceful street protests. Yesterday's demonstration came after a new round of talks between opposition leaders and State Minister Avtandil Jorbenadze ended inconclusively on 2 June after weeks at the negotiating table.

Jorbenadze chairs Georgia's Citizens Union, the president's traditional power base and part of Alliance For a New Georgia, a newly created pro-Shevardnadze umbrella coalition that also includes the Socialist Party, the National Democratic Party, and the Green Party. Opposition parties and Alliance For a New Georgia have been trading accusations in recent weeks, blaming each other for allegedly nurturing plans to disrupt the electoral process.

Early last month (9 May), Davit Gamkrelidze, the leader of the New Rights opposition party, publicly accused Shevardnadze of seeking to declare a state of emergency in order to curtail basic civil rights and muzzle the opposition media.

Shevardnadze's camp launched an immediate counterattack, accusing the opposition of planning to destabilize the country with the help of specially trained paramilitary units.

Speaking yesterday to representatives of Russian-speaking media, Socialist Party member Irakli Mindeli reiterated the accusations against the opposition: "Their main aim is not to change the election law. Their aim is to not go to the polls, to illegally force the [government] out before the election. We've already heard such calls from the parliament rostrum, and this is most dangerous."

During his weekly radio address on 2 June, Shevardnadze entered the fray, cautioning the opposition against triggering large student protests. Similar protests in October 2001 forced the Georgian president to dismiss his entire cabinet and prompted Zhvania, then speaker of parliament, to join the opposition.

Zhvania drew a parallel between yesterday's protest and the large 2001 demonstrations, which were sparked by a failed police raid on Georgia's independent "Rustavi-2" television channel.

"I was hoping that Shevardnadze would understand that the people of Georgia no longer tolerate that independent television channels are being closed, that elections are being falsified, and that the government is manipulating the election law," he said. "Unfortunately, he has not drawn any lessons from past experience. Therefore, people have once again had to gather here in front of the parliament. More and more people are coming [to the demonstrations] with the aim of preventing Shevardnadze and his entourage from depriving them from their most important right, the right to choose their own destiny."

Zhvania also brushed aside accusations from the opposition Labor Party that the current Central Election Commission was approved during his tenure as speaker. The Labor Party and other anti-Shevardnadze groups did not take part in yesterday's demonstration, testifying to the deep divisions in the Georgian opposition.

At the same time, some members of the opposition say Shevardnadze's popularity is flagging and that he is beginning to look further afield for potential foes and scapegoats. During his radio address, the Georgian president lashed out at an unnamed international organization, which he accused of stirring trouble by financing his opponents.

"The only thing that restrains me and prevents me from mentioning this organization by name is that it has done a lot for Georgia, in particular by allocating funds to scientists," Shevardnadze said. "It is nevertheless regrettable that this organization should meddle in politics."

Russia's St. Petersburg-based "Rosbalt" news agency yesterday quoted Shevardnadze aides as saying the Georgian leader was alluding to the George Soros Foundation. The Georgian media has also suggested the attack was directed at the Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire and his organization.

Those reports, however, could not be independently confirmed. There has been no official reaction from the Soros Foundation, which has been involved in society-building initiatives in all the post-Soviet countries since the fall of communism.

The Soros-Funded Open Society Georgia Foundation has been involved in a number of projects aimed at assisting authorities in fighting corruption, promoting educational reform, and improving the country's struggling health-care network.

Despite the harsh tone of Shevardnadze's radio address, the president said he was ready to cooperate with the opposition and vowed to do his utmost to ensure the upcoming poll is fair and democratic.

Reminding Georgians he does not intend to seek a third mandate in 2005, Shevardnadze said any attempt to falsify election results or bribe voters would be severely punished.

But this is not enough to assuage the concerns of opposition leaders, who say they have no plans to give up their pressure tactics and that more protests are likely in the near future.