Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Commentary: Georgia poised for an unstable spring

Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempt to enjoy a leisurely dinner at a Japanese restaurant recently here in the capital turned into a noisy demonstration, with shouts of "Misha, go away," and "Misha - to prison" as he tried to enjoy his meal. And it may soon get much noisier for the embattled president. The opposition has declared April 9, the 20th anniversary of a brutal crackdown by Soviet forces on demonstrators in the Georgian capital, as the date for a large-scale protest to demand Saakashvili's resignation.

"April 9, 2009, will become a Rubicon: it's either Georgia, or this brigand-like Saakashvili regime," said Giorgi Khaindrava, former minister for resolution of conflicts and now an outspoken opponent of the Georgian president. "The entire world is waiting for the day when Georgian society, by dint of constitutional means, will make Saakashvili step down," he said.

Calls for the Georgian president to step aside and call an early presidential vote have grown louder since the disastrous conflict with Russia last August over the region of South Ossetia.
The government that pitched the country into such a debacle has forfeited its moral right to rule, opposition activists say. Saakashvili, whose current term expires in 2013, has so far dismissed calls for early elections as totally unacceptable.

He said his opponents' time would be better spent worrying about "what people have in their refrigerators" than in plotting to remove him from office. "Our priorities are to ensure security and the economic development of the country, and a new election and referendum would be a hindrance," said Akaki Minashvili, chairman of parliament's committee for foreign relations.

Still, the opposition has been busy trying to build support for the protest. Members of the United Opposition movement claim they have already collected nearly 50,000 signatures from residents of the capital who pledged to participate in the demonstration.
"The opposition is making really serious preparations; the president of Georgia can't imagine how hard the blow it is going to deliver him will be," Khaindrava, the former government minister said.

Nino Burjanadze, the former speaker of the Georgian parliament who has founded her own opposition group, said she intends to take active part in the April 9 rally. If Saakashvili does not step down on his own, Burjanadze said, "the people will oust him in a peaceful, constitutional way." Adding to the serious of the planned protest, there are reports that Irakli Okruashvili, a former ally of Saakashvili who held numerous ministerial posts in the president's government, has vowed to return from political exile in France and join the protest.
For now, the opposition's main challenge appears to be getting its message across. Unlike previous demonstrations, there are no mass media outlets in the hands of Saakashvili 's opponents that can rally public support.

The sole exception is Giorgi Gachechiladze, the brother of opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, who has been broadcasting on a local television station since mid-January and insists he won't leave the studio until Saakashvili steps down. Observers say it too soon to say whether the opposition will be able to gather enough support to threaten Saakashvili's grip on power.

"Saakashvili, once he becomes obstinate, is not someone you can easily make resign," said political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze. Archil Gegeshidze, another political observer, agreed."If there is no coordination and consultations among the opposition, they won't be able to bring protests to the boil," he said.

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