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Georgia: Government, opposition remain at loggerheads

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Molly Corso
Publication Date 18 March 2008
Cite as EurasiaNet, Georgia: Government, opposition remain at loggerheads, 18 March 2008, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
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Molly Corso: 3/18/08

With parliamentary elections just a few months away, little hope is emerging for a breakthrough in an ongoing political standoff between the Georgian government and opposition. Local analysts believe that a hunger strike launched by the opposition in early March will do little to produce a political settlement. Meanwhile, opposition leaders have appealed to the international community for assistance.

Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze, who held negotiations with the opposition this winter, is the chief target of the opposition's discontent. Opposition leaders claim that Burjanadze, a key ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili, has repeatedly broken agreements with them during the negotiation process, including one on an important constitutional amendment outlining a new breakdown for parliamentary representation. They demand that she resign from office.

On March 12, parliament passed a constitutional amendment that will decrease the number of parliamentary seats elected by party lists to 75 (from 100) and increase the number of first-past-the-post seats from 50 to 75. An earlier statement from the ruling United National Movement had indicated that the government would back an opposition proposal for proportional seats based on regional representation to take the place of seats elected by a majority vote. Parties will need to gain 5 percent of the vote to win a seat – down from the previous 7 percent.

The nine opposition parties pushing for Burjanadze's resignation list the demand as one of the prerequisites for ending their hunger strike, now in its tenth day. Opposition sources and local media report that an estimated 60 people, including a dozen members of parliament, are taking part in the protest action outside of parliament and in Burjanadze's office reception area.

"She [Burjanadze] is guilty of disrupting negotiations between the authorities and the opposition, as well as of the illegal passing of constitutional amendments," coalition leader Levan Gachechiladze said during a March 16 opposition rally in front of parliament, local media reported. Gachechiladze is not taking part in the hunger strike.

The government's response to the criticism has been swift. Saakashvili lambasted the opposition before he left for a trip to Washington, D.C. on March 16, referring to the hunger strike as "un-Christian."

"I am willing to call upon the opposition – both the moderate and the radical part of it. The time has come to stand together and guard our state," he told journalists. "I am very troubled that they [opposition leaders] are resorting to what is in principle an un-Christian form of political struggle at this time.... I think that this is a time when all people need to see their place in Georgia's history, their place in defending Georgia."

On March 18, 10 opposition parties – an eight-member opposition bloc plus the Republican Party and the New Rights Party – called on Georgia's European allies to help broker a resolution to political conflict. In an emotional letter, the opposition lashed out at the government, accusing it of "arrogant behavior" and of deliberately sabotaging the negotiation process.

Plans have also been announced for a protest outside the US embassy in Tbilisi on March 19 to coincide with Saakashvili's meeting with US President George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, Burjanadze has shrugged off the opposition's allegations and their demand for her resignation. Speaking to the press on March 17, Burjanadze said the opposition "wasn't serious" and accused them of constantly changing their demands.

In an interview with the opposition-friendly newspaper Rezonansi, Burjanadze emphasized that the opposition's wide-ranging list of demands – everything from the ousting of President Saakashvili to changes in the election code – had been one of the major reasons for the failure of talks with opposition parties. "If I resign, will they suspend the hunger strike? Will they drop the demand for the president's resignation?" she asked. "I am not going to resign just because [New Rights Party and MP Davit] Gamkrelidze demands it."

The opposition's increased fragmentation is chipping away at their support base, according to political scientist Koba Turmanidze. Three weeks ago, the moderate Republican Party left the opposition coalition, leaving the bloc with an eight-party base.

While the party still has close relations with the coalition, it is not participating in the hunger strike and has decried the demands for Burjanadze's resignation.

The Labor Party, another onetime coalition member, has moved further away from the group. During a March 17 broadcast of the late night political talk show Prime Time, Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili referred to his own party as the only real opposition, noting that there is "no difference" between other opposition parties and the government.

According to Turmanidze, an assistant professor of political science at Tbilisi State University, the opposition faces a real challenge to maintain its popular support in time for parliamentary elections expected for May. President Saakashvili has not yet specified a date for the vote.

"[When] no one can see any results, there is a disappointment. From the very beginning, the support was built in a very fragile way," he said in an earlier interview with EurasiaNet. "It is very easy to lose these people because it was based not on the opposition's good activities or some things they did, but that the government did totally wrong things."

While the coalition has continued to hold demonstrations with the New Rights and the Republican Party, the number of protestors has sharply decreased from its peak following January's presidential elections. Local news sources estimated the turnout at the latest protest on March 16 at between 3,000-6,000 participants. Earlier protests attracted crowds of tens of thousands.

Political scientist Lasha Bliadze agrees that popular support for the opposition has declined. "I see the tendency that people are not very sure about this movement. Many people are tired of this – of so many splits," he told EurasiaNet in an earlier interview.

However, opposition leaders like the People's Party's Koba Davitashvili, who has been on the hunger strike for ten days, is not discouraged. During an interview with EurasiaNet, he shrugged off suggestions that the opposition is losing ground. "[A] meeting is one thing and a hunger strike is something different ... the people support us," he said. "The fact that we are sitting here is [evidence] that the people support us – if the people did not support us, they [the government] would have kicked us out already."

Political scientist Bliadze contends that the media plays a large role in what he terms is a withering of popular support for the opposition: the protestors, in particular the hunger strikers, have received limited coverage on the country's three main television stations – Rustavi-2, Mze and the state-financed public broadcasting channel.

"If Imedi television station will [return] on air and if their politics will not be very different, I think the opposition will have more chances," he said. Imedi, founded by the late tycoon and former presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili, was widely seen as more pro-opposition than other news stations in Georgia. The station has not resumed its broadcasts since shutting down in late December in the wake of coup allegations against Patarkatsishvili. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Rumors about Imedi have abounded since its founder's death in February. Lewis Robertson, the head of News Media Caucasus, which manages the television station, denied reports that the station could soon resume broadcasting. In a telephone interview with EurasiaNet, Robertson confirmed that negotiations about Imedi were in progress, but would not divulge who was representing Imedi's interests.

Many of the journalists at the station have entered politics as part of an opposition party, the Conservative Democrats, set up by Giorgi Targamadze, former anchor of the station's news magazine Droeba and the head of political programming. On March 18, Targamadze, who holds no elected office, called for compromise on the parliamentary representation issue, arguing that hunger strikes and street protests will do little to hold voters' attention for long.

People's Party leader Davitashvili stopped short of admitting that there is little chance the hunger strike will reap any tangible results for the opposition, although he noted "in some sense, it is true" that it is unlikely the authorities will agree to any of their demands. "I think that we have chosen the most civilized – of course radical, but civilized – form of struggle. We will continue to the end," he said.

Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

Posted March 18, 2008 © Eurasianet

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