In recent weeks, the opposition to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has aligned in two main camps. Both are demanding new presidential elections, but they differ on timing and tactics, with one demanding gradual and the other more immediate political change.
Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on February 23, Irakli Alasania -- Georgia's former point man for negotiations with Abkhazia and, from 2006 until late last year, Georgia's ambassador to the UN -- issued an ultimatum to Saakashvili to schedule within 10 days a national referendum on holding an early presidential election.
Alasania warned that if Saakashvili fails to do so, he and the Alliance for Georgia -- which has signaled its readiness to propose him as a presidential candidate -- will take action "together with our compatriots...as the country's interests dictate."
Alasania said that Georgians should have the opportunity to decide whether a preterm presidential election should be held.
The following day, four more opposition parties, including the Democratic Movement-United Georgia headed by former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, rejected the call for a referendum. Instead, they set a deadline of April 9 for Saakashvili to resign, vowing that if he does not do so they will launch open-ended protest rallies outside the parliament building in Tbilisi and across the country.
Conservative Party co-leader Kakha Kukhava argued that new elections should not be held before Saakashvili steps down. "It is not possible to hold any presidential or preterm elections as long as Mikheil Saakashvili remains in power," he said.
Those twin challenges raise to a new level the standoff between the embattled Saakashvili administration and a political opposition that has been bolstered over the past six months by the defections of several senior officials to protest what they considered Saakashvili's rash, irresponsible, and precipitous decision to launch military operations in South Ossetia in August 2008. Growing Opposition
Burjanadze was one of the first to openly declare her opposition to Saakashvili, publicizing a list of 43 questions concerning the circumstances that culminated in the outbreak of hostilities, to which Saakashvili has not responded.
On November 23 -- the fifth anniversary of the culmination of the so-called Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili, Burjanadze, and Zurab Zhvania to power -- she launched her own opposition party, the Democratic Movement-United Georgia. Since then, Burjanadze has repeatedly called for an early presidential election, in which, she said in a February 20 interview with gazeta.ru, she plans to participate as a candidate.
Former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania has emerged as an opposition leader.
On January 29, 12 opposition parties, including the Republicans and New Rightists; Burjanadze's Democratic Movement; and a similarly named party headed by another former close Saakashvili ally, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili; signed a memorandum demanding Saakashvili's resignation, early parliamentary and presidential elections, and cast-iron guarantees that those ballots would not be rigged.
Zurab Noghaideli, who served under Saakashvili as prime minister from February 2005 until November 2007, has also founded his own opposition Movement For A Just Georgia. But in contrast to Alasania and Burjanadze, Noghaideli advocates transforming Georgia into a parliamentary republic. "The era when decisions are made by one person and his team should end. The time for collective decision-making should come," and with it a coalition, not a one-party government, civil.ge quoted him as telling a press conference on February 10.
Ombudsman Sozar Subari has similarly distanced himself from Saakashvili. He issued a strongly worded open letter in late September enumerating the negative phenomena that characterize what he termed "authoritarian rule" in Georgia, and warning: "this is not democracy. This is not the road to Europe."
Alasania announced his resignation in early December. Last week, he unveiled his political program and named the team of politically likeminded figures who support him. They include three more former diplomats: Levan Mikeladze, who resigned as ambassador to Switzerland in November 2007 to protest the brutal crackdown by police on opposition protesters in Tbilisi; former ambassador to the OSCE Viktor Dolidze; and former ambassador to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan Aleksi Petriashvili.Saakashvili Defiant
The defection from the Saakashvili camp of such distinguished figures such as Burjanadze and Alasania, both of whom enjoy international respect, is one factor that has transformed the Georgian political landscape since early January 2008, when a group of nine, mostly extraparliamentary opposition parties backed businessman Levan Gachechiladze in the preterm presidential ballot that Saakashvili scheduled in the wake of the November crackdown. Saakashvili won reelection with 53.47 percent of the votes cast, but the number of people who actually endorsed him was less than half the number who voted for him four years earlier.
Saakashvili nonetheless remains adamant that he will not step down before his second presidential term expires in January 2013. What is more, he argued in his February 12 annual address to parliament that Georgia will be able to weather the combined impact of the global financial crisis and the aftermath of the war over South Ossetia "only if we maintain political stability and unity," the unspoken corollary being that any challenge to himself personally or to the government he heads is irresponsible and fraught with danger.
The second event that has transformed Georgian politics over the past year was the preterm parliamentary elections in May 2008, in which opposition candidates won only a handful of the 150 mandates. Some of those oppositionists opted to boycott the new parliament to protest perceived irregularities in the vote, a move that effectively yielded a legislature totally controlled by Saakashvili's United National Movement.
Nino Burjanadze has also broken with her former Rose Revolution ally.
Consequently, political discourse in Georgia has in effect moved out of parliament: the press conference has superceded the legislature as the main, if not the only forum for formulating political views, with television simultaneously becoming the main forum for political debate.
Whether and how Saakashvili will respond to Alasania's demand for a referendum is unclear. According to Article 74 of the Georgian Constitution, the president may schedule a referendum on his own initiative, or at the request of parliament, or in response to a petition signed by no fewer than 200,000 voters. There is no minimum legal turnout, which means that theoretically just a few voters could determine whether or not new elections are held.
Davit Usupashvili, chairman of the Republican Party which recently aligned with the New Rightists to form a new movement that will nominate Alasania as its candidate if and when an early presidential ballot is held, explained later on February 23 that they decided against seeking to collect the 200,000 signatures required to demand a referendum because doing so could take up to six months. Instead, Usupashvili said, the alliance plans to "campaign actively."
Alasania for his part stressed that the opposition and the Georgian authorities share responsibility not to let the situation escalate out of control and thus risk a possible new revolution.
Burjanadze too stressed on February 24 that she and her political allies seek change by exclusively peaceful means. "We want to bring about a change of leadership by peaceful, constitutional means, by means of protest actions, and to embark upon a process of building genuine democracy," she said.