Georgia 10 April 09. Hope for Peace?
Molly Corso and Elizabeth Owen 4/10/09
Hours after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili rejected the opposition’s ultimatum to step down, opposition leaders threatened to seize systematic control of the country using civil disobedience.
Opposition leaders announced a blockade of streets in front of parliament, the presidential residence and the Georgian Public Broadcasting headquarters every day between 3 pm and 9 pm in Tbilisi.
Levan Gachechiladze, the former presidential candidate, told EurasiaNet that the opposition plans to extend these blockades throughout the capital and, eventually, to the rest of the country until Saakashvili resigns.
At an afternoon briefing, National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili told reporters that the government "will not obstruct" protestors from closing the three roads, two of which are major thoroughfares.
"We will have to see for tomorrow how the situation develops," Tkeshalashvili said, noting that the government’s official policy is to allow people to demonstrate. "We are counting on the wisdom of our public as well." Uniformed police in the Georgian capital remain minimal, but alert.
Roughly 90 minutes into the blockade’s 6pm start on April 10, police had partly closed access to one of the blockaded roads, outside of Georgian Public Broadcasting. Yelling slogans, opposition supporters on foot and in cars were loosely grouped on the road outside the TV station, but did not extend much beyond the building.
Meeting with foreign journalists in his office, the Georgian president showed no sign of disquietude at the protests or the opposition’s demands. "I’ve been facing these ultimatums every other month for the past five years," Saakashvili said, calling the demonstrations a "normal part of the Georgian political scenery."
But while neither government nor opposition shows signs of acceding to the other side’s demands, Saakashvili and one opposition leader both are repeating calls for dialogue.
"The way forward is by sitting down together, by listening to one another," Saakashvili said. He listed the election code, constitutional amendments to increase parliament’s powers and the direct election of "some" mayors and "local government officials" as topics up for discussion. (A separate English-language statement specified direct election of the mayor of Tbilisi, now selected by the city council).
"This offer is real. This is profound. This is substantial," he continued, speaking in English. "And I’m sure that this will produce real results."
Within a few hours, Irakli Alasania, the leader of a moderate opposition coalition, publicly invited Saakashvili to a discussion with opposition leaders.
"[I want] to personally meet with him, to explain what is the base for the demand for early presidential elections, and, hopefully, this will be the opportunity for us all to sit down and calling from the street - and him calling from the presidential residency," Alasania, Georgia’s former United Nations ambassador, told journalists in a briefing room set up in a downtown Marriott Hotel.
National Security Council Secretary Tkeshelashvili told journalists after Alasania’s statement that while it is too early to comment on the offer. "Generally," the government has never been "restrained" from "open dialogue" with the opposition, Tkeshelashvili insisted, adding that the government does remain in some form of contact with the opposition, although those contacts have diminished since the April 9 protest began.
Aside from Alasania, opposition leaders gave little public sign of being ready for discussion with Saakashvili. Earlier such offers - to discuss the economic crisis, national security and election reform -- have also been rebuffed.
Former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili told supporters in front of parliament that the only matter to discuss is Saakashvili’s resignation. Koba Davitashvili, leader of the People’s Party, also dismissed the offer, saying that Saakashvili "has nothing to do" with the economic crisis so there is no point in talking about it or other issues with him.
How long protestors will opt to see the blockade through remains open to conjecture. The number of rally participants outside parliament was noticeably less than on April 9, although the turnout was sufficient to close the street, Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue.
Stressing that there will be "enough" people to force Saakashvili to resign, former Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze told EurasiaNet that the opposition is not afraid to split up into three separate protests - one at each of the street barricades.
For now, if his reading material is any indication, the 41-year-old president looks set to wait the barricades out.
On his desk, alongside copies of Jane’s Defense Weekly, the Russian tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolyets and an iPod, lay "The Hole in the Flag," a non-fiction account of Romania’s transformation after its violent 1989 revolution. "Georgian democracy showed its maturity yesterday," he told reporters. Holding peaceful demonstrations without incident, he added, "was a major step forward."
Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNet’s Caucasus news editor also based in Tbilisi.
Posted April 10, 2009 © Eurasianet