Talks on May 11 between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and four prominent opposition leaders failed to yield any progress toward a compromise that would end the month-old political standoff.
While two moderate participants subsequently affirmed
their readiness to continue that dialogue, their more radical colleagues have declared further such talks pointless, and instead plan to mobilize the population in a wave of civic mass disobedience and possibly a general strike.
The May 11 talks were a direct consequence of, and intended to prevent a recurrence of, a clash late on May 6 between police and opposition supporters who converged on Tbilisi's main police station to demand the release of three young oppositionists detained for assaulting a journalist employed by Public Television. Opposition leaders claim that up to 60 people were injured in the melee, one of whom may lose the sight of one eye; a police spokesman confirmed that 29 people were hospitalized with injuries. The three detainees were released on May 7 after Georgian Patriarch Ilia II interceded on their behalf.
Also on May 7, the opposition parties that aligned to launch protests on April 9 to demand Saakashvili's resignation and an early presidential election issued a joint statement
affirming their readiness to meet with Saakashvili to explain to him why they consider the holding of early presidential and parliamentary elections the only way him to end the "crisis" precipitated by the government's "irresponsible and provocative actions."
Meanwhile, the ambassadors in Tbilisi representing EU member states again called for a dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. Former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania, who now heads the opposition Alliance for Georgia, similarly called on May 7 for such talks to begin "as soon as possible" in order to avert "civil confrontation."
In response to the opposition joint statement, parliament speaker David Bakradze, who over the past few weeks has repeatedly appealed to the opposition to abandon their demand for Saakashvili's resignation and to embark instead on talks on political reform, met for one hour on May 8 with four prominent oppositionists (Tina Khidasheli and Viktor Dolidze of the Alliance for Georgia and Gubaz Sanikidze and Koba Guntsadze of the National Forum).
The opposition hoped to use that meeting to finalize a time and place for talks with Saakashvili, but Bakradze reportedly refused to address that issue, saying he was prepared to discuss only the previous proposals for political reforms.
At a rally outside the parliament building on May 9 attended by several thousand people, opposition politicians including former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze and former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili gave Saakashvili 24 hours to set a date for talks with the opposition, and suggested several alternative venues.
It was announced late on May 10 that Saakashvili had agreed to meet the following day with opposition representatives at the new headquarters of the Interior Ministry. Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party (which backs Alasania) commented
that the choice of venue only serves to substantiate the widely held belief that it is Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili who runs the country, not Saakashvili.
In the run-up to the May 11 meeting with Saakashvili, the opposition alliance For Georgia's Future drafted
a five-point memorandum enumerating its demands.
They were: constitutional amendments to curtail the powers of the president and expand those of the parliament and the executive branch; the reorganization of, and top-level personnel changes within, the Interior Ministry, which is widely regarded to be above and beyond
the law; amendments to the election law that would guarantee future ballots are free and fair, and the appointment of a new central and local election commissions; and an end to pressure on and censorship of the media.
What specific issues the four oppositionist party leaders (Alasania, Zurabishvili, Burjanadze, and National Forum head Kakha Shartava) discussed with Saakashvili on May 11 is not clear, although Caucasus Press on May 12 quoted Alasania as saying that Saakashvili suggested holding early local elections instead of early parliamentary and presidential ballots.
In a statement issued later on May 11, Saakashvili characterized the talks as "the beginning of an honest and transparent process" of strengthening democratic institutions and building national consensus. He pledged
that the government is "firmly committed to working cooperatively with opposition leaders" to resolve the problems Georgia currently faces.
Saakashvili went on to reiterate previous offers made over the past year to the opposition. They included establishing a constitutional commission on which the opposition would be represented, and that would be chaired by an opposition representative. That commission would, Saakashvili said, "work towards a balanced constitutional model.... A model where there will be space for strong presidential power, as well as a strong parliament [and] an independent judiciary." That formulation suggests that his previous amendments to the constitution in 2004 and 2006, which were intended to produce precisely such a model, failed to do so.
The parliament in fact established a commission in December 2008 to assess constitutional amendments proposed by Saakashvili. The opposition was invited to name 10 of its 24 members.
Saakashvili also said in his May 11 statement that he proposed to the opposition beginning "work on the Electoral Code" with the aim of creating an electoral system in which "no one dares to protest against the results" of the ballot. But a working group to draft a new election law already exists, and began its work in March, although the opposition, which had already drafted its own alternative proposals for improving the existing election legislation, declined to participate.
In addition, Saakashvili invited the opposition "to work together on reform of the judiciary," and held out the offer of appointing opposition representatives to unspecified responsible positions and to the supervisory board of the Georgian Public Broadcaster. At present, the board's nine members are selected by parliament, in which Saakashvili's United National Movement controls 119 of the 150 seats.
The opposition is now divided on whether or not further talks with Saakashvili would serve any useful purpose. Alasania and Levan Gachechiladze, an independent politician who ran unsuccessfully against Saakashvili in the January 2008 presidential ballot and who reportedly is still extremely popular, both said on May 11 they are ready to continue the dialogue with the authorities for "as long as it takes."
By contrast, Zurabishvili denounced Saakashvili as "living in a virtual world." For that reason, she said, further talks with him are pointless. Sanikidze told supporters gathered outside the parliament building that over the next two days, most opposition leaders will leave for the provinces in a bid to mobilize support there. Shartava said they will declare mass civil disobedience and possibly even a general strike. Burjanadze for her part affirmed that "we are not prepared to wait" for Saakashvili's term to end in 2013, but will give him "one last chance" to demonstrate his love for his country by leaving office voluntarily.
The international community clearly hopes that Saakashvili's proposals will enable the two sides to inch toward a consensus. EU South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby told the television station Rustavi-2 that he considers "significant" Saakashvili's willingness to create new bodies to address reform of the constitution, election law, and judicial system. Semneby, who has met several times in recent weeks with both government and opposition representatives, again stressed that there is "no alternative to dialogue," and that the ongoing deadlock is "simply dangerous for the country."