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EU Envoy In Tbilisi As Opposition Hints At Negotiation

Protests In Georgia
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(Protests in Tbilisi on April 14)

As antigovernment protests in Georgia enter their eighth day, splits appear to be emerging among the opposition over possible talks with President Mikheil Saakashvili.

In an effort to facilitate a peaceful end to the standoff, European Union envoy Peter Semneby is in Tbilisi on April 16 holding separate meetings with opposition leaders.

"Our preference and the preference of all Georgia's friends is that we have a political process that will require trust. This is what has been missing most of all -- trust between the sides," Semneby told reporters during a break in the talks. "Once that trust starts to be re-established, I think there is a possibility for a dialogue to take place, a dialogue that this country so dearly needs."

The protestors have thus far demanded Saakashvili's resignation as a precondition for any negotiations. But Irakli Alasania, the popular former UN ambassador who now heads the opposition Alliance for Georgia, appeared to leave the door open for compromise.

"This one demand is on the political agenda, but we are ready to hear how the other side intends to take the country out of the crisis. The EU, as we have been told, is ready to facilitate preparations for such a meeting," Alasania told reporters.
We still assert that it is possible to meet and speak with Saakashvili, but only on the condition that the meeting is public

Most of the opposition, however, continue to reject talks. Salome Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister and leader of the party Georgia's Path, told reporters in Tbilisi that the opposition remains united in demanding Saakashvili's resignation.

"We still assert that it is possible to meet and speak with Saakashvili, but only on the condition that the meeting is public, and it is about this one demand [for his resignation]," Zurabishvili said.

The government has offered to talk with the opposition on constitutional and electoral reforms in order to facilitate a smooth transfer of power when Saakashvili's term ends in 2013. They have also offered direct elections for Tbilisi's mayor. Some officials have suggested that a coalition government which includes members of the opposition is even possible.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Eka Tkeshelashvili, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, said the opposition is reluctant to hold talks because they lack a concrete political program:

"The opposition has at the moment one common demand, which is the president's resignation," Tkeshelashvili said. "But other than that -- as is becoming obvious to the general public as well as to political analysts -- there is no unity, there are no clear ideas. These parties don't even have an idea about what they want the country's arrangements to be."

Tents, Cells, And Reality Television

Anti-government protests have been going on in Georgia since April 9, the 20th anniversary of the 1989 independence demonstration that was crushed by the Soviet army, in which 20 people were killed.

Starting on April 13, opposition leaders began what they called a "new wave" of protests featuring various forms of street theater. They erected tents, cages, and cells in front of Saakashvili's residence, the prime minister's office, and the public television station.

The improvised cages were inspired by a popular reality television program hosted by singer Giorgi Gachechiladze, the brother of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze.

In January, Gachechiladze turned his television studio into a mock cell and said he would remain there until Saakashvili resigns. He recently called on the opposition to launch a "campaign of cells" around the Georgian capital.

Many opposition figures want President Saakashvili to step down before talks
Georgians are celebrating Orthodox Easter over the weekend, and the opposition says it will keep the protests low key for the next several days out of respect for the holiday.

"I hope that the holiday that we have in front of us will be a time not only to take a rest from the confrontation, but also to for all sides to reflect -- from the political parties, government, opposition, and I would say the Georgian people -- on how to move forward and make sure that the underlying political issues, constitutional, electoral, and so on can be best addressed," Semneby said.

David Usupashvili, the leader of the opposition Republican Party and a member of Alasania's Alliance for Georgia, said the EU role was "very important" given the lack of trust between government and opposition.

"We, the opposition, believe that we have well-grounded arguments as to why we should not trust the government, which has many times broken its own words. In such a situation, the EU's role is immense," Usupashvili said.

NATO Exercises On Horizon

As the EU tries to broker a solution to the political crisis, a fresh controversy has emerged between Tbilisi and Moscow over NATO's plans to hold military exercises in Georgia next month.

In remarks reported by RIA Novosti, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to the Atlantic alliance, called the exercises an attempt by NATO to "interfere in Georgia's affairs," because they would show support for Saakashvili.

Speaking at a press conference in the Armenian capital Yerevan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also spoke out against the planned NATO exercises.

"Of course, the demonstration of NATO's complicity in the things done by the Georgian regime will probably send the wrong signal to those who sincerely seek stabilization in the Caucasus," Lavrov said

NATO's acting spokesman Robert Pszczel says the exercises, which are scheduled to run from May 6 to June 1 and involve 19 countries, represent no threat to Russia. Pszczel added that Moscow can still sign up to take part.

Nona Mchedlishvili and Eka Tsamalashvili of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report from Tbilisi