Opposition groups drew some 60,000 participants (by average estimates) for a rally in Tbilisi on April 9 and threatened to continue rallying on a daily basis. All Georgian television channels covered the advance preparations for the rally, as well as the event itself and the speeches, in full detail in their broadcasts (Rustavi-2, Imedi, Public Broadcaster channels, April 9).
The opposition’s goal — transcending multiple differences among opposition groups —- is to pressure President Mikheil Saakashvili and the parliament into resignation and calling new elections. Just one year ago, the opposition had lost presidential and parliamentary elections that were assessed positively overall by Western observers and international organizations. Most opposition groups have seemingly ignored those assessments, however. Without the responsibility of governing, the opposition groups can only thrive in a permanent campaigning and crusading mode.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia, followed by the global economic recession’s impact on the country, have led opposition groups to conclude that the authorities became vulnerable and the time is ripe for a new push. Georgian opposition leaders characteristically look for short-term tactical opportunities to move against the government. Most of today’s opposition groups had launched the anti-presidential campaign with full force in June 2007, which was more than one year before the Russian invasion and a time of double-digit economic growth. At that point, the opposition saw its tactical opportunity in billionaire Badri Patarkartsishvili’s and ex-presidential ally Irakli Okruashvili’s open break with Saakashvili. Emboldened, a coalition of a dozen opposition groups launched a campaign to overthrow the president and government.
Some of those same opposition leaders addressed yesterday’s (April 9) rally in Tbilisi in their accustomed, fiery style. Since the Russian invasion, however, several figures from the core of the political establishment have gone into opposition and made their own tactical alliances with the radicals. Thus, former parliament chairwoman Nino Burjanadze and the former top diplomat Irakli Alasania — now leading the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party and the Alliance for Georgia, respectively — are also campaigning to oust the president and government and for new elections. The campaign is highly personalized in two ways: the opposition parties are leader-centered and they focus overwhelmingly on the goal of ousting the president.
Speakers at the rally blamed Georgia’s existential problems on the president’s person. Alasania declared: "Saakashvili promised to bring prosperity, but what we see now is unemployment and a faltering economy" (RFE/RL, April 9). Levan Gachechiladze, runner-up in the January 2008 presidential election, declared: "We find it difficult to live, to love. It is hard for us to work, to communicate with each other, to raise our children. And this is because all of this is at the mercy of one master: Mikheil Saakashvili. So we came here to say ‘Resign, Resign !’" (RFE/RL, April 9). Such narratives forget the 2004-2008 fast economic growth and investment boom while ignoring the current global crisis.
Alluding to the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Gachechiladze called Saakashvili a "Coward;" and the Conservative party leader Zviad Dzidziguri called the president a "Rabbit, our shame," both drawing cheers from their supporters. West European diplomats who deem Saakashvili a "hothead" (often without researching the background to the war) have another opportunity to rethink.
Today’s moderates seem to echo the complaints of yesterday’s radicals about "terror and violence, menace and harassment, election fraud and repression of freedom of expression," as Alasania put it (EurasiaNet, April 9). In a similar vein the eminent poet Davit Maghradze told the rally, "No to terror and violence, intimidation and humiliation, rigged elections and restrictions on freedom of speech and expression" (Georgian Public Television Channel One, April 9). It is, however, a Georgian peculiarity that the opposition complains about restrictions on freedom of expression from television screens on a quotidian basis.
Participants in the rally approved by acclamation a resolution calling for the Saakashvili’s resignation and demanding a response within 24 hours — that is, by the afternoon of April 10. Failing this, the resolution threatens to hold non-stop rallies until the president resigns. The wording leaves the door open to negotiations with the authorities about the timing and modalities of a presidential resignation and new elections.
Beyond that immediate goal, the opposition is deeply fragmented. The flags of 13 different opposition parties and blocs (some of the blocs themselves consisting of several groups each) were seen in the crowd at the rally. Burjanadze could qualify as relatively moderate based on her past record, but her own political base is small and she is reaching out to radical groups. At the rally she rejected the authorities’ offer of dialogue ("too late") and apologized profusely for her past alliance with Saakashvili. Radical groups at the rally booed her nevertheless.
For his part Alasania is trying to stake out the role of a quasi-mediator between the opposition and Saakashvili. He takes the position that the president should himself be a part of the solution and agree with the opposition on a peaceful transition of power through new elections. Alasania proposes that the opposition and the president negotiate constitutional changes to that effect.
The opposition also held small-scale rallies in several provincial cities on April 9. Meanwhile the president and parliamentary leaders are redoubling efforts to engage the opposition in a dialogue on constitutional and legal amendments within the existing electoral cycle, which envisages parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013, respectively.