Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Georgian opposition leader pledges to prevent violence at protests

A Georgian opposition leader pledged on Tuesday to try to prevent mass disorder from breaking out during upcoming protests to demand President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation. A total of 14 Georgian opposition parties have said they will take part in the rallies, scheduled to begin on April 9. "Everything necessary must be done to avoid shooting or any other violence," Nino Burdzhanadze, who heads the opposition For a United Georgia party, said in an interview with the Russian business daily Kommersant. "But nothing can be ruled out, especially with such a government."

Burdzhanadze also said however that there was a chance that despite her efforts, violence could erupt at the protests. "This danger exists. But if you are afraid of wolves, you should keep out of the forest." When asked if the protests could lead to the start of civil war in the former Soviet republic, Burdzhanadze, who is also the parliamentary speaker, said, "I hope this will not happen, and I will do anything to prevent it."

"Civil war should be prevented, as well as any military scenario - the country will not be able to cope with it," she said. Saakashvili has seen his popularity steadily decline since last August's conflict with Russia, which was followed by Moscow's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, republics that had been de facto independent from Tbilisi since the early 1990s. Last November, around 10,000 protesters gathered on the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, to demonstrate both against Saakashvili's rule and his decision to drag the country into a costly war that it had little chance of winning.

"The absolute majority dislikes Saakashvili," Burdzhanadze said. "While Saakashvili is in power, there is no guarantee that Georgia will not lose a few more regions." Several opposition activists, including 10 members of Burdzhanadze's party, were recently arrested on suspicion of illegally buying firearms ahead of the protests. Burdzhanadze however called the arrests "mudslinging" that the majority of people did not believe in.

She also said that the only negotiations she was willing to enter into with Saakashvili were "about the president's resignation." "Talks can only be held on how to make his resignation as painless as possible for the country," she added. A year prior to the anti-war protests, Georgia was rocked by opposition rallies for six days as protestors occupied central Tbilisi demanding Saakashvili's resignation over allegations of corruption and increasing authoritarianism. The Georgian leader responded by sending in riot police to crack down on protestors on November 7. Over 500 people were injured, according to the U.S. rights group, Human Rights Watch, as police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to break up the demonstrations.

Saakashvili subsequently called early elections for January 2008 and was reelected with 53% of the vote.


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