Georgia Opposition Vow to Topple Saakashvili

President’s enemies say huge street protests next month, will end his rule - but not everyone is convinced.

Georgia Opposition Vow to Topple Saakashvili

President’s enemies say huge street protests next month, will end his rule - but not everyone is convinced.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s plans to have a leisurely supper at a Japanese food restaurant in central Tbilisi on March 9 were spoiled.

That evening, a group of activists from The 7th of November opposition movement, named in memory of the demonstrations that were violently broken up in 2007, gathered outside the restaurant, chanting “Misha, go away!” and “Misha – to prison!”

Late last year, the opposition declared that on April 9, 20 years on from the day the Soviet army suppressed a gathering in Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, it would hold 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,” Giorgi Khaindrava, former minister for resolution of conflicts, now a vociferous opponent of the Georgian president, told IWPR.

“The entire world is waiting for the day when Georgian society, by dint of constitutional means, will make Saakashvili step down.”

Calls for the Georgian president to resign have grown louder since the disastrous war 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.

However, they have yet to hammer out a common strategy for challenging the authorities, and not all opposition groups have expressed readiness to join the April 9 rally.

Late in February, one group delivered an ultimatum to the president, demanding that he set a date for a referendum on early presidential elections within the next two months, and giving him ten days to do so.

The group, Alliance for Georgia, is led by 35-year-old Irakli Alasania, who used to be Saakashvili’s envoy to the United Nations before he publicly attacked the president and resigned last December.

Now he is one of the most popular political figures in Georgia, and his alliance comprises the Republican Party and New Rights Party, as well as Alasania’s own followers.

But the ultimatum expired on March 5 without its addressee having made any moves to accept it.

Saakashvili, whose second term as president ends in 2013, has dismissed the idea of early elections as totally unacceptable.

He suggested that politicians would do better to think about the country’s stability, which he said was threatened by the world financial crisis.

They should concentrate on “what people have in their refrigerators”, he remarked.

“Our priorities are to ensure security and the economic development of the country, and a new election and referendum would be a hindrance [to fulfilling them],” Akaki Minashvili, chairman of parliament’s committee for foreign relations, said.

“An election, a referendum – this is what would undermine interests of society.”

The idea of holding a rally on April 9 came from the United Opposition movement, the radical wing of the Georgian opposition.

For five days recently, its activists walked through Tbilisi’s residential districts, collecting signatures from people who insisted they were ready to hit the streets in protest against Saakashvili.

The United Opposition says it has collected 48,347 signatures in the capital alone and will replicate this in the regions, from March 10, over three days, spanning 16 towns.

“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 promised.

The former speaker of the Georgian parliament, Nino Burjanadze, who has founded her own opposition group, Democratic Movement – United Georgia, and who, like Alasania, cherishes presidential ambitions, intends to take active part in the April 9 rally.

She said that if Saakashvili, whom she called “inadequate”, did not step down by April 9, “the people will oust him in a peaceful, constitutional way”.

Yet another former Saakashvili ally is widely expected to put his shoulder to the opposition plough.

This is Irakli Okruashvili, who held the posts of minister of interior, minister of defence and minister of economic development at different stages of his career.

He now lives in France, having obtained political asylum there a year ago.

“Okruashvili will come back [from France] by April 9, when a serious protest movement begins to unfold in Georgia,” Khaindrava predicted.

The leader of the United Opposition, Levan Gachechiladze, has even advised Saakashvili and his team to “flee from the country”, if they want to save themselves.

“April 9 will mark the beginning of permanent street protests and of society’s consolidation,” he warned.

“It’s difficult to foresee when these protests will end… We will win, but I don’t yet know at what cost.”

The opposition has no powerful mouthpiece to promote its cause, however.

Imedi, the TV-company it used to prepare for the 2007 November protests, like all other national television channels, is now under government control.

The station was formerly owned by the late businessman, Badri Patarkatsishvili.

The opposition has only two smaller TV outlets to rely on to communicate with public – Kavkasia and Maestro – but their signal does not reach beyond Tbilisi.

On January 20, Maestro launched an unprecedented reality show, Cell Number Five, featuring a famous singer, Giorgi Gachechildze, brother of the opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze.

He has since shut himself up in Maestro’s studio, saying he won’t leave as long as Saakashvili remains in power.

Politicians and public figures have been trooping in to visit him every evening and discuss political developments, criticise the authorities and call on viewers to join the protest on April 9.

Day and night, four TV cameras watch Gachechiladze who has insisted that the conditions of his voluntary incarceration approximate as far as possible to those in a real prison.

This is to signify his belief that Georgia has turned into a jail under Saakashvili.

But experts say it may all yet come to nothing.

“It’s too early now to say whether the opposition will be able to bring about a change of the power,” political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze said. “It largely depends on what strategy the authorities choose to employ.”

He said the opposition might fail to achieve anything if the president took an uncompromising stance.

“The fact that president Eduard Shevardnadze stepped down during the Rose Revolution in 2003 does not mean his successor will do the same thing,” he said.

“Saakashvili, once he becomes obstinate, is not someone you can easily make resign.”

Another political expert, Archil Gegeshidze, struck the same note, “If there is no coordination and consultations among the opposition, they won’t be able to bring protests to the boil.”

His colleague, Soso Tsintsadze, believes that 80 per cent of the people who take to the streets in the near future will do so mainly in the hope of winning some immediate concession.

“People view meetings as a means of overcoming crises in a short time,” he said.

“This is not a classical political struggle. Only two of every ten protesters will protest because of their political convictions.

“The opposition is selling the bear’s skin before it has caught the bear, instead of trying to ensure coordination in their own ranks first.”

Mikhail Vignansky is a correspondent of Vremya Novostei in Tbilisi.
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