On March 27, 13 Georgian opposition parties announced
that they will coordinate the organization of peaceful protest rallies beginning on April 9 with the aim of forcing President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign and schedule an early presidential election, civil.ge reported.
In a "Manifesto of Unity" signed the same day, they accused the Georgian authorities of plunging the country into a "deep political, economic, and social crisis"; of continuing to violate human rights; and of dragging Georgia into the war with Russia in August 2008. Those errors, the statement says, have triggered "hopelessness, nihilism, and mistrust" among much of the population.
The announcement reflects a degree of unanimity among major opposition parties and leaders unprecedented in Georgia's post-Soviet history. The eight parties that aligned a month ago with the objective of staging a mass protest on April 9 to demand Saakashvili's resignation have now been joined by the Alliance for Georgia headed by former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania, who initially challenged the authorities
to allow a nationwide plebiscite on the desirability of an early presidential ballot.
Alasania on March 31 unveiled the findings of an informal poll his party conducted across Georgia, in which 86.5 percent of the more than 400,000 respondents expressed support for an early election, according to Caucasus Press on April 1.
The 13 parties that signed the manifesto are the Alliance for Freedom, comprising Tavisupleba (Freedom), the Women's Party for Justice and Equality, the Traditionalists, and the Party of the Future; the Conservative Party, whose leaders are Kakha Kukava and Zviad Dzidziguri; the Democratic Movement–United Georgia led by embattled former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze; Georgia's Way, led by former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili; the Industrialists Party headed by Zurab Tkemaladze and beer magnate Gogi Topadze; the Movement for a United Georgia founded by ex-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who has vowed to return to Tbilisi to participate in the April 9 protest despite a formal warning from the prosecutor's office that he will be arrested on corruption charges if he does so; and the People's Party led by Koba Davitashvili. Levan Gachechiladze, who placed second to Saakashvili in the January 2008 early presidential election as the joint candidate of an alliance of nine opposition parties, also signed the manifesto.
The only prominent opposition party not to sign was former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli's Movement For a Just Georgia. Shalva Natelashvili's populist Labor Party announced on March 31 that it too will participate in the April 9 protest.
The signatories to the manifesto pledged that the April 9 protest will be peaceful, "with our bare hands" (an implicit rejection of the authorities' recent allegations that Burjanadze's supporters engaged in the purchase of weapons with the imputed aim of staging a coup), and will not violate the provisions of the country's constitution. Conservative Party co-Chairman Dzidziguri told journalists on March 29 that the organizers estimate that between 300,000-400,000 people will attend.
During the 10 days immediately preceding the protest, opposition party leaders have scheduled a series of public meetings in five provincial cities, beginning on March 30 in the eastern town of Telavi.
In the wake of the official media campaign to discredit and denigrate Burjanadze, current parliament speaker Davit Bakradze argued on March 25 that the only way to defuse the mounting tensions between the leadership and the opposition is dialogue, a course that visiting Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe members Matyas Eorsi and Kastriot Islami also urged during talks in Tbilisi last week.
Petre Tsiskarishvili, who heads the majority parliament faction of Saakashvili's National Movement Party, similarly made a formal statement on March 31 proposing talks with the opposition focusing on three major issues: how to overcome the impact on Georgia of the global economic crisis, defending security and national interests, and how to implement jointly unspecified democratic political reforms.
But several senior opposition figures have rejected that repeated offer. Alasania responded on March 27 to Bakradze's initial statement by saying that the only issue on which any dialogue with the authorities is possible is Saakashvili's resignation and the peaceful surrender of power. Zurabishvili for her part affirmed on March 31 that "no dialogue will take place before April 9," and that any party that agrees to participate in talks will forfeit its credibility. Conservative Party co-Chairman Kukava was quoted on March 31 by the daily "Akhali taoba" as commenting that the authorities only ever offer to talk to the opposition when they are under pressure.
That categorical refusal could, however, misfire, insofar as the authorities could adduce it to substantiate reprisals and even arrests in the next few days, purportedly to prevent the April 9 protest turning violent. The website civil.ge on March 30 quoted Giorgi Gabashvili, a senior legislator from Saakashvili's National Movement Party, as arguing that simultaneously calling for "disorder" while rejecting dialogue in favor of "extreme and radical confrontation" only compounds the danger that the situation will escalate out of control.