Georgia’s extra-parliamentary opposition has launched its annual spring offensive in the streets, for regime change outside the constitutional framework. This campaign has become an annual occurrence since the spring of 2007, regardless of economic cycles or the government’s economic performance, which is highly rated internationally by most reform and development indexes (European Stability Initiative, ESI Newsletter, April 2010).
The radical opposition includes more than a dozen small groups, competing with each other as much as against the government, and built around individual figures, rather than programs for governance. These groups have not produced alternative socio-economic proposals beyond resisting liberal modernization as such. Meanwhile, legislative cooperation between the governmental majority and the parliamentary opposition receives far less media attention in Georgia and internationally, compared with the activities of extra-parliamentary groups.
Their seasonal campaigns focus by definition on short-term tactics. They waited until the spring of 2009 to blame the Georgian government for Russia’s August 2008 invasion and Georgia’s loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This has become the central argument in the current year’s regime-change campaign.
The extra-parliamentary opposition is using this argument to mobilize supporters for the May 30 local elections. The mayors of Tbilisi and other towns will be elected (for the first time) directly by voters, instead of indirectly by municipal councils (which have themselves been elected directly by voters all along). Nineteen parties and blocs (the blocs include more than one party each) have registered just for the Tbilisi municipal council election. Of these, nine parties and blocs are contesting the mayor’s post, currently held by Gigi Ugulava of the governing National Movement.
The contest in Tbilisi is the main electoral event and, by the same token, law-enforcement challenge. All radical opposition leaders with their social networks are based in parts of the capital city.
On April 30 and May 3, several thousand opposition supporters blocked traffic for several hours in parts of downtown Tbilisi. The action marked the first use this year of a tactic that had wrought havoc last year on Tbilisi. The police did not intervene. Organizers warned that they would return to action three days later (Interfax, April 30, May 3). On May 6 (St. George’s Day and professional holiday for policemen), a crowd of several hundred attempted to stop the policemen’ festive parade near the interior ministry building. Stone-throwing demonstrators clashed with the police. Zurab Noghaideli, a former prime minister now leading a pro-Moscow opposition faction, indicated for the media that such tactics are planned and may escalate: “You see that we have clashed with the police at this rally, and we will continue our fight until we are successful” (Civil Georgia, Kavkas-Press, May 6). On May 7, Conservative Party leader and mayoral candidate, Zviad Dzidziguri, fired four warning shots at a campaign team that was putting up posters near his house for the incumbent mayor. Interviewed by at least two national television channels, Dzidziguri warned that he could do this again (Public TV Channel One, Imedi TV, May 7).
Opposition groups call for release of “political prisoners.” Cast in that role are the leaders of the abortive Mukhrovani military mutiny, a former state employee (Vakhtang Masaia) convicted for passing secrets to Russia, a former president’s young son (Tsotne Gamsakhurdia) sentenced for inflicting a gunshot wound on a neighbor, and some lower-profile individuals sentenced in corruption cases (for example, a relative of fugitive Svaneti mountain chieftain Emzar Kvitsiani).
On the other hand, opposition groups call for common-law prisoners to be granted amnesty, early release, or abridgment of jail terms. This general demand refers to many thousands of convicts from Georgia’s numerous prison population (itself a consequence of the government’s successful crackdown on crime of all types). The opposition’s demand for leniency is designed to win the votes of the detainees’ families in the upcoming local elections.
Claiming in advance that the election will be falsified, some of the radical factions have warned that they could launch street actions to topple the authorities when the election returns are announced.
Such warnings can be taken at face value. Last year, radical opposition groups reached the brink of using force, almost crossing it in several instances. This year, the irreconcilable opposition may cross that brink more boldly after the May 30 elections. Several factions have gained added confidence from Moscow’s overt support, not only for the goal of regime change, but also for these factions’ leaders personally.