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Georgian Opposition Keeps Up Pressure

Following Saakashvili’s election victory, the opposition sets its sights on parliamentary ballot.
Stands are being erected outside the Georgian parliament on Rustaveli Avenue for the grand inauguration ceremony of Mikheil Saakashvili on January 20, following his re-election by a narrow margin.

The celebratory mood will be challenged by a demonstration which the anti-Saakashvili opposition is planning just as carefully as the authorities are preparing the inauguration.

The municipal authorities in Tbilisi have refused a request by the opposition to hold a rally on Rustaveli Avenue on the day of the inauguration. Instead, the opposition alliance, which insists that the January 5 vote was rigged and that it does not recognise the outcome as legitimate, says it will hold a protest at the city hippodrome.

The main demand being made by opposition politicians is that a second round of voting should take place, but they do not expect the authorities to give in to this.

They are now getting ready for a parliamentary election which has been brought forward to spring of this year, after 69 per cent of voters backed the idea in a referendum held at the same time as the presidential election.

Simultaneously, 72 per cent of the electorate voted yes to the question of whether Georgia should pursue membership of NATO.

The calling of early elections was supposed to defuse the political crisis which erupted in November, but it now seems that controversy over the vote and the calling of an early parliamentary poll has prolonged the tension.

Although Saakashvili won the election, he now faces a second term in which his power will be more restricted. The pro-government National Movement party is expected to perform worse in the coming parliamentary election than Saakashvili did in the presidential vote, and could easily lose its majority in parliament.

According to the final results from the January 5 ballot, Saakashvili won 53 per cent of the vote, thus avoiding the need to contest a second round. Gachechiladze scored 25 per cent, with the remaining candidates a long way behind.

International observers gave the vote a clean bill of health, albeit with some reservations.

The opposition has disputed the result and staged a series of protest rallies.

The biggest protest in Tbilisi was attended by between 80,000 and 200,000 people – depending on the source of the estimate - despite sub-zero temperatures.

“We were brought here by injustice,” said Ia Chikhladze who works at Tbilisi’s technical university. “I can live on just bread, I can put up with shortages, but I cannot tolerate illegality, falsehood and injustice. Today the authorities are interpreting the law in their own way.”

Saakashvili has made overtures to the opposition since the election.

Opposition leaders were pleased by a first round of talks held on January 14, since they got approval for their demand to dissolve the supervisory board of Georgian Public Television, which critics says is heavily biased towards the authorities.

Since Imedi, the only television channel sympathetic to them, went off the air, opposition parties have complained that they have no platform for their views.

“It is our first serious success,” defeated opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze told a rally outside the Public Television headquarters on January 15. “Public Television has returned to the public. We forced the self-declared [president] Saakashvili to make a compromise, and that is your victory.”

Saakashvili, who was often scathing about his opponents during his first term, has adopted a more conciliatory tone since his re-election. Speaking live on television, he said he was ready to cooperate with the opposition and to invite professionals into his government.

“These elections showed that public opinion is divided,” said Saakashvili. “A lot of people came to the polling stations, and a lot of people did not vote for us. No one can ever ignore the opinion of those people who did not vote for us.”

Giga Bokeria, one of the main ideologues around Saakashvili, said in a television interview that the president’s call for cooperation demonstrated the new administration’s political maturity.

“I don’t advise anyone to take this as a sign of weakness on the part of the authorities,” he said. “The authorities in Georgia are now strong as never before.”

The opposition has rejected the president’s offer that they could join the government, but has agreed to talk to him.

“We do not want government posts - we do not recognise Saakashvili as a legitimate president,” said Salome Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister who is now an opposition leader.

“The public is demanding a second round, but it is unlikely that the authorities will agree to one. So the second round can take the form of a parliamentary election. It will be an election against Saakashvili.”

Another opposition leader, David Zurabishvili (no relation of Salome), said, “We will never recognise Saakashvili’s legitimacy but that does not mean that we will break off contact with the authorities. We are continuing the fight, so that the parliamentary election takes place under different circumstances from those in which the presidential election was held.”

Political expert Archil Gegeshidze said the opposition was constrained by its own promises.

“The opposition is worried about its electorate,” he said. “They know that if they compromise with the authorities and don’t demand a second round they may lose their supporters.”

Political analyst Kakha Gogolashvili said most of the public is keen to see political dialogue take place.

“The election result showed that Georgian society is divided into two camps of equal size,” he said. “In this situation, dialogue is simply essential. In reality, the political platforms of the government and opposition are similar and their disagreements are purely subjective ones – and that shows the low level of political culture in Georgia.”

Veriko Tevzadze is a correspondent with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.

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