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Tempers Fray As Protest Momentum Wanes In Tbilisi

Opposition supporters clash with riot police in Tbilisi on April 23.
Ten days ago, Georgian opposition leaders affirmed that when they resumed protests on April 21 after the Easter break, they were confident of mobilizing enough support nationwide to force President Mikheil Saakashvili to step down by the end of the month.

But although several thousand opposition supporters travelled to Tbilisi last week from provincial cities to join picketers at several locations in the capital, the combined numbers fell far short of the hoped-for 200,000. On April 25, the opposition filed a formal application with Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava to extend the protest actions until May 8.

Meanwhile, the number of acrimonious verbal exchanges and minor scuffles between protesters on the one hand and police and pro-government journalists on the other is increasing. One protester was arrested and a police officer reportedly injured in a standoff during the night of April 23-24. On April 24, city residents sought to prevent opposition supporters from erecting addition mock prison cells on the city's main boulevard.

Increasingly, the Georgian Public Television is incurring criticism from the opposition for its allegedly biased coverage of their protests. Also on April 24, oppositionist and former government minister Goga Khaindrava engaged in a heated argument outside the station's Tbilisi offices with one of its journalists.

Levan Gachechiladze, who was the main opposition candidate in the January 2008 early presidential election, argued on April 24 that the Public Broadcaster should be banned from covering the ongoing protests unless it begins to do so objectively, and that its journalists should be stripped of their accreditation. He further accused the station's director-general, Levan Kubaneishvili, of seeking to trigger violence. The Public Broadcaster issued a formal statement the same day condemning efforts to prevent its journalists from doing their job.

Parliament speaker David Bakradze on April 26 again accused the opposition of systematically rejecting talks with the Georgian leadership. He said the authorities had proposed holding talks on April 18-19 that would focus on "major issues...including the restoration of confidence," but that the opposition rejected that offer.

Bakradze hinted that the authorities are planning to sideline the radical opposition and co-opt the moderates. He said that if it proves impossible to secure the radical opposition's backing for the government's proposed reforms, the authorities will implement them in tandem with "society and those political forces that are willing to engage with us."

In the final analysis, the theatricalization of the opposition protest -- for example the mock prison cells strategically placed outside the presidential residence and the headquarters of the Public Broadcaster -- is no substitute for the permanent presence in the capital of tens of thousands of determined opposition supporters.

David Gamkrelidze, chairman of the moderate opposition New Rightists and co-leader with Irakli Alasania of the Alliance for Georgia, has tacitly conceded this point. The weekly "Kviris palitra" on April 27 quoted him as saying that the current political standoff in the country was "a struggle of nerves and endurance." He recalled that the post-presidential-election protests in Ukraine in 2004-05 lasted for two months.

In the same interview, Gamkrelidze also admitted that the opposition may have committed a major strategic error by not closing ranks behind a single leader. "It would have been better if the opposition had united around one leader," he said. "We believe that we should have offered the society an alternative leader to Saakashvili; the majority of the opposition should have agreed on a single leader, and only afterwards we should have launched a vigorous struggle" to coerce Saakashvili to step down.

Curiously, the authorities apparently still regard former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze as the one opposition figure to be sidelined at all costs. On April 23, the Georgian tax authorities presented her with a demand for 1.525 million laris (almost $1 million) in back taxes. And on April 24, the Georgian Interior Ministry made public video footage showing Burjanadze's husband, former Border Guard commander Badri Bitsadze, and one of their sons distributing wooden clubs to oppositionists congregated outside the building housing the Public Broadcaster.

A spokesman for Burjanadze's Democratic Movement -- United Georgia issued a statement later on April 24 defending that tactic as justified. He said the protesters have the right to self-defense in cases where the patrol police fail to take the requisite action to protect them.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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