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Opponents Vow Protests Will Last 'As Long As Needed' To Oust Georgian President


Anti-Saakashvili protesters warmed up the crowd at an event at the same square on April 8, one day ahead of the planned nationwide protests.
(RFE/RL) -- The main opposition groups in Georgia are preparing to throw down the gauntlet to President Mikheil Saakashvili as they launch a protest that they say will continue indefinitely until he resigns.

The protest coincides with the 20th anniversary of a brutal Soviet crackdown against independence demonstrators in Tbilisi in which 20 people were killed. Opposition leaders see the new protests as a similarly momentous landmark for the country.

"I would say it is the final test for the nation, and [everything] depends on the extent to which we are able to stand there calmly, prudently, and to the end, said former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, head of the opposition Georgia's Path party.

An anti-Saakashvili protest in Tbilisi in mid-February
Zurabishvili added that just as 20 years ago, "there is no turning back. Disbanding is out of question -- and whoever calls for that will be carrying out a task assigned to them by the government. The same goes for those who will attempt to strike deals, let alone those who try to instigate any kind of provocation or call for occupying any building."

Zurabishvili underscored that demonstrators would remain on the streets until the president steps down. Opposition activists predicted that some 150,000 people would take part in the action in Tbilisi, although government supporters have expressed doubt the divided opposition can muster such a show of strength.

Smaller rallies are planned for other major cities in Georgia.

Attempts At Dialogue

Discontent with Saakashvili has been running high, particularly since the disastrous five-day war with Russia last August. In a statement issued on April 7, the opposition accused Saakashvili of launching the war, as well as of widespread abuses of power, violations of property rights, election fraud, and ruining the economy.

Former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze's opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia party has claimed that dozens of its supporters had been detained southeast of the capital, although Georgian authorities refuted the allegation.

Party spokeswoman Khatuna Ivanishvili said the 60 or so activists "were planning to come to Tbilisi today to attend the rally," according to Reuters.

"It is not true," the agency quoted Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili as saying.

Zurabishvili and other opposition leaders, including Burjanadze, have insisted on no compromises. But fellow oppositionist Irakli Alasania, a former ambassador to the UN who heads the Alliance for Georgia coalition, told reporters that dialogue with the authorities remains a possibility.

"We are not rejecting dialogue. It is our wish to use dialogue to resolve the political and economic crises that the country was plunged into after the August war," Alasania said.

"We are calling upon the government to respond appropriately to the current political crisis," he added. "If they sincerely want the country to survive, let us avoid confrontation. If they -- and I'm referring to the leader -- really want to be remembered as facilitators of stability in Georgia, now is the opportunity to do so, and he should use it."

In the run-up to the protests, the government sought to open a dialogue with the opposition. Saakashvili has named Penitentiary and Probations Minister Dmitri Shashkin as his envoy to talks on national security, the economy, and political reform. However, the parties organizing the rally did not participate in those talks.

Last week, Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava proposed that a direct mayoral election in the capital be held in 2010; currently, the mayor is elected by the city council. This is one of the key reforms being demanded by the opposition, and ruling party lawmaker Givi Targamadze told the Internet newspaper "Civil Georgia" the proposal is "very healthy."

Calls For Calm, Threats Of Disorder

Many opposition leaders are adopting a seemingly uncompromising stand. With the government's insistence that Saakashvili is democratically elected and will not step down his natural term ends in January 2013, many are concerned the confrontation could spin out of control.

The government recently accused some members of Burjanadze's party of attempting to purchase weapons and plotting unrest. Georgian media reported that unidentified oppositionists had purchased military uniforms and were planning to create the impression that some army units had sided with the demonstrators.

Many fear a repeat of the violence following the opposition protests in November 2007.
For its part, the Saakashvili government was widely condemned at home and abroad for its brutal suppression of a demonstration in November 2007. Opposition activists have been warning for weeks of possible government provocations designed to create chaos and discredit the opposition.

On the eve of the April 9 protest, both sides were promising restraint and pledging to respect the constitution. A lawmaker from Georgia's ruling National Movement party, Chiora Taktakishvili, said that the government respects the public's right to demonstrate.

"The government will undertake very careful measures, but it will definitely undertake measures if the public order is disturbed," Taktakishvili said. "It will use methods that are used by the European democratic governments to prevent turmoil and destabilization -- not to mention calls to violently overthrow a democratically elected government."

Pikria Chikhradze, of the opposition New Rightists party, says that the demonstration will be peaceful and urges police to eschew politics. "All police bodies should be protecting the public order, rather than the interests of a single political force," she said. "Consequently, the government has an immense responsibility, and this responsibility should be met when there are critical days in the country. And I very much hope the government will not be tempted to resort to provocations."

Caucasus affairs expert Mamuka Areshidze said the latest demonstrations could represent a dangerous moment for Georgia, one that outside forces -- including Russia, which opposes Saakashvili's pro-Western foreign policy, and some wealthy Georgians living abroad -- could try to use for their own ends.

"The weaker Georgia gets, the easier it becomes to beat it. And the [outside] forces that are interested in this are mushrooming day by day," Areshidze said.

Areshidze said he does not necessarily believe the latest rallies and demonstrations "are going to further destroy the country."

"I think there is a chance the country will be plunged into chaos and total destruction, but there is also a chance that, in this situation, society will benefit greatly, and the government will concede a lot," Areshidze said. "In my view, this will be a better way out."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report