Thursday, April 23, 2009

Georgia opposition tries to revive street campaign

Tents in the streets paralysed traffic in central Tbilisi and hundreds of cars crawled in convoy to the Georgian capital on Wednesday to breathe fresh life into an opposition campaign to oust the president.

Several thousand people, car horns blaring, answered opposition calls to travel to Tbilisi in a bid to boost numbers as the street campaign against President Mikheil Saakashvili nears its third week.

Opposition leaders are demanding the 41-year-old leader step down over his record on democracy and last year's disastrous war with Russia.

But Saakashvili has refused, and the authorities -- wary of repeating a 2007 police crackdown against the latest mass rallies against the president -- are observing patience with the protesters despite traffic chaos in the capital.

Turnout has dwindled to just a few thousand from the peak of 60,000 when the campaign began on April 9. But opposition leaders deny the campaign is running out of steam.

Supporters have set up tents and improvised 'prison cells' down the central Rustaveli Avenue past parliament and other state buildings, forcing drivers to take to the backstreets.
The opposition promises to keep rallying and blocking streets until Saakashvili steps down, but analysts question the unity of the more than a dozen opposition leaders involved or their ability to draw enough people to force the president out.

"Much more people wanted to join us, but we decided that we would face difficulties with their accommodation in Tbilisi," Irakly Melashvili, opposition National Forum leader, said of the effort to draw supporters from outside the capital.

Critics accuse Saakashvili of monopolising power and exerting pressure on the judiciary and media since coming to power on the back of the 2003 "Rose Revolution".

Last year's five-day war with Russia, when Moscow crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia, emboldened critics who say Saakashvili -- perceived by some Georgians as brash and impulsive -- has made too many mistakes to stay in power until 2013.

But analysts say his ruling United National Movement retains wide support and his position appears strong, despite the defection of some top allies and several cabinet reshuffles.
They say the government is biding its time until more moderate opposition leaders lose patience with the street campaign and enter talks with the government.

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