Opposition Rallies Fail to Unseat Saakashvili

It looks as if the president may pull off his gamble to simply ignore the wave of protests demanding his resignation.

Opposition Rallies Fail to Unseat Saakashvili

It looks as if the president may pull off his gamble to simply ignore the wave of protests demanding his resignation.

On the roadway outside the residence of the Georgian president, opposition supporters have pitched tents and set up improvised prison cells, which they say symbolise the state of Georgia under the current government’s rule.

“More targets will be picketed, and the actions are going to continue until our main demand – that Mikheil Saakashvili step down – is met,” one of the opposition leaders, Levan Gachechiladze, said.

But Georgia’s wily leader may have pulled off his political gamble to remain in power, experts say. The ongoing opposition rallies demanding his resignation are starting to show signs of losing momentum.

Leaders of the opposition promise a “third wave” of the protests after the Easter holidays are over but in the meantime, the size and intensity of the rallies in the capital, Tbilisi, appear to be steadily shrinking.

The protests began back on April 9, when between 30,000 and 150,000 people – depending on whether you take the government’s or opposition’s figures – took to the streets of Rustaveli Avenue to demand Saakashvili’s resignation and early presidential elections.

The opposition accuses him of violating human rights, plunging the country into economic crisis, clamping down on media freedom and embroiling the country in a war with Russia that they say could have been avoided.

As part of their campaign, activists have been rallying supporters close to the public television building and state chancellery, as well as outside the presidential residence and the parliament.

Experts describe the current situation as a stalemate, which may delay the moment when the two sides feel the need to sit down and negotiate.

“While they understand that they should talk, both sides are marking time,” Shalva Pichkhadze, head of the non-governmental organisation Georgia in NATO, said.

“The authorities are doing so in the hope that the scale of the opposition rallies will diminish, whereas the opposition is waiting for a bigger protest wave.

“Still, they’ve already begun to think what the future negotiations will be about.”

Predicting the possible outlines of a deal, he said one option was an early presidential election before 2013, when Saakashvili’s second term in office is due to end.

“But it won’t be as early as the opposition wants it to be,” he cautioned.

Another expert, Gia Nodia, was less optimistic, noting that the opposition was far from united in its stance, and that elements were totally irreconcilable.

The slogans that many of them had adopted were too radical for them to go back on their tracks now, Nodia warned.

“The authorities will wait until the protests abate, and then they will try to reach a compromise with a part of the opposition that will be willing to talk,” he predicted.

While some hardliners may be prepared to protest for as long as it takes, signs of a willingness to talk are already audible in the opposition camp, as the protests appeared to have failed to crack the president’s nerves.

Irakli Alasania, leader of the Alliance for Georgia and Saakashvili’s former envoy to the United Nations, says he was “ready to engage in negotiations provided they are conducted publicly and with the participation of people trusted by society”.

The authorities, in turn, are emollient, saying they are ready to discuss any issue with the opposition – except, of course, for its key demand, the president’s resignation.

The speaker of parliament, David Bakradze, has said repeatedly that he will “discuss any issues of relevance to the country, including constitutional reform”.

Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Strategic and International Research Foundation, says it does not help that meeting one’s opponent halfway is a little understood concept in Georgian society.

“A step towards a compromise is viewed by our society as a weakness: such is the special feature of our Caucasian political culture,” Rondeli told IWPR.

In the meantime, observers are wondering what the opposition can muster after the Easter holidays.

Much of its credibility will depend on whether it can mobilise the masses on a large scale across the country as it has vowed to do.

One of the leaders of the For United Georgia party, Eka Beselia, sounded a confident note.

“After the holidays, a third stage of the protests will begin, when people from the regions will be brought here and more pickets will be organized outside other [government] sites – possibly, the city hall and interior ministry,” he said.

Gubaz Sanikidze, of the National Forum, said, “The actions will soon spread beyond Tbilisi.”

But Nodia believes that for all its brave talk, the chances of the opposition bringing down the president look slender, especially if the government plays its cards right.

“If the authorities don’t make mistakes, the protests won’t increase,” he predicted. “That is why it is very unlikely that the events will result in victory for the opposition.”

One such “mistake” the authorities must be careful to avoid making is the use of force against the protesters.

“If the government does a foolish thing and takes violent action, the probability of a lot more people taking to the streets will increase,” Pichkhadze said.

The current authorities used violence against their political opponents on a notable scale on November 7, 2007, when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators.

They also forced Imedi, the TV company that served as the mouthpiece for the opposition at the time, off the air.

Saakashvili then declared a state of emergency and called an early presidential election, which he won with 53 per cent of the vote. The opposition accused him of stealing the election and still refuses to recognise its results.

Some observers even suspect the organisers of the latest demonstrations of deliberately courting a violent scenario in order to swing public opinion behind them.

“The opposition is well aware that it won’t be able to defeat him through an election, which is why it is trying to repeat the Rose revolution,” Nodia told IWPR, referring to the bloodless overthrow of then president Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003 that brought Saakashvili to power.

“But Saakashvili has learnt the lesson of the 2007 November well and tried to make his policy more orientated at the public, more populist, and he has succeeded in doing so. The opposition has mobilised fewer supporters than it expected.”

For their part, the authorities have said they won’t forcefully break up the protests.

Indeed, police have not interfered at all, despite the fact the demonstrators have blocked the city’s main highways for hours every day and prevented municipal services from functioning.

The interior ministry has said that it would act “only if demonstrators attempt to penetrate government facilities”.

In the meantime, no doubt to the satisfaction of the authorities, the protests are beginning to annoy some ordinary residents of the capital.

“Many are dissatisfied with the government, but why cause problems to ordinary people, as if it was our fault?” Jemal Kacharava asked. “The protest actions have created awful traffic jams across the city. I wish our politicians would come to an agreement at last.”

Dmitry Avaliani is an IWPR contributor.
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