Georgian Opposition Protest Masks Inherent Weakness

Analysts say split that's opened up in opposition ranks letting President Saakashvili off the hook.

Georgian Opposition Protest Masks Inherent Weakness

Analysts say split that's opened up in opposition ranks letting President Saakashvili off the hook.

When Georgia’s opposition leaders summoned a 60,000-strong protest against President Mikheil Saakashvili on May 26, it looked like a show of strength – but it masked major differences over strategy that may destroy their challenge to his rule.

Opposition activists have been protesting for weeks against Saakashvili, and demanding his resignation for – among other things – alleged mismanagement of the disastrous war against Russia last August.

They have blocked the main street in the capital Tbilisi, and lined it with tents made up to look like prison cells. But many of these tents are now empty, and activists appear to be exhausted by their failure to achieve results.

A clear division has arisen between opposition leader Irakly Alasania, a former ambassador to the United Nations who says he is ready for talks with Saakashvili, and Nino Burjanadze, the more radical ex-speaker of parliament, over what direction to take the protests in.

“Alasania has sold us out. He did not stand with us when we closed the street. But we will fight to the end. Glory to Georgia without Saakashvili,” said Levan, a 24-year-old protester.

But analysts say the split that has opened up in the opposition ranks has given Saakashvili the chance he has been waiting for. He has steadily refused to send in soldiers or police to break up the protests, claiming to have learned the lessons of his violent suppression of protests in November 2007, and his strategy of waiting for them to die down of their own accord appears to be paying off.

“Right now, the opposition has two wings. Alasania is ready for dialogue, and Burjanadze thinks there is no sense in dialogue with the authorities. It is now up to the authorities to see which of the two gets more supporters,” said Iya Antadze, a commentator from Radio Liberty.

“If Saakashvili makes concessions, then the position of those who support dialogue will strengthen. If Saakashvili concedes nothing, then this will play into the hands of the radical wing of the opposition and the protests will renew with fresh strength.”

A previous attempt to hold negotiations, on May 11, led to nothing. Saakashvili offered to amend the constitution, with improvements to electoral law and reforms to the court system, but that was not enough for the opposition leaders, who called the proposals “inadequate”.

They may have overplayed their hands, however. The protests had already started to run out of steam before May 26. The daily gatherings outside parliament, which has had its work paralysed by the demonstrators, had become very small and some protesters are now as angry with their own leaders as with Saakashvili.

Alasania has said such protests had become pointless.

“I personally plan to continue my work in three directions,” he announced. “The first is to direct acts of protest at gaining definite results, and not just to hold permanent protests. The second is to hold more definite dialogue with the authorities, and the third is to actively appeal to the international community.”

He also confirmed he would not join with the radical opposition activists who, for several hours on May 26, blocked the railway lines to Tbilisi.

“We will not gain our aims like this,” he said.

Burjanadze, the radical opposition leader, has maintained her strong stance against the president, however.

“No government is changed by statements alone, and Saakashvili is not such a ruler and his regime is not such a regime to be changed just by statements or easy methods. I am convinced that we need to take very active, very serious, very effective steps to change this government. I am ready for such steps together with the people,” she said on May 27.

Although the split looks like undermining the protests in the short term, analysts said it could help it draw up a more effective strategy eventually. Andro Barnov, head of the Institute for Strategy and Development, said he thought the opposition could have done with more focus from the beginning.

“The opposition, in organising these actions, was too heterogeneous. Thanks to this process, people will be able to take a more informed choice,” he said.

But those protesters that remain outside parliament are already becoming frustrated with the discussions of strategy, and it is not clear if they will wait for their leaders to make up their minds.

“The only reason I have stood here for more than a month is that I want Saakashvili to leave. If the opposition leaders were more decisive, we could achieve this. Why are these dialogues necessary, when they are pointless,” asked Malkhaz, a 53-year-old Tbilisi resident.

“If the opposition itself does not know what to do, why did they promise us to fight to the end?”

Tamar Kadagidze and Tamar Kvirtia are freelance journalists.
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