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Analysis & Opinion
09.04.09 Tbilisi Takes To The Streets
By Shaun Walker

The post-Soviet protest compass for April had been pointed firmly at Georgia for a long while, with today’s opposition protests planned some time ago. The mood in Tbilisi was said to be tense, with many people expecting a rerun of the November 7, 2007 protests that were dispersed by riot police and proved the first crack in the image of Mikheil Saakashvili as a Westernising democrat in Brussels and Washington.

Georgian authorities had accused opposition parties of planning a coup, rumours were flying around Tbilisi that Russian intelligence had been involved in funding opposition parties, and the mood among segments of the population was defiant. But in the end, while violent protests rocked the Moldovan capital of Chisinau earlier in the week, the Tbilisi protest turned out to be less dramatic than might have been expected.

Irakli Alasania, formerly the Georgian Ambassador to the UN before he went into opposition, and now the leader of the Alliance for Georgia, said that according to “conservative estimates” 130,000 people were gathered when the rally was at its peak. Other opposition leaders claimed that 150,000 people had turned up, while the Interior Ministry said that the figure was just 25,000. Independent observers suggested both figures were wrong, and claimed the real total was something like 60,000.

More importantly, the day passed without violence on either side. An announcement early in the day from one of the opposition parties that 60 of its activists had been arrested in a provincial town and not allowed to travel to Tbilisi didn’t seem to bode well, but the Georgian authorities denied that any arrests had been made and the rest of the day passed quietly.

The speeches from the tribune were impassioned and all had one theme – Saakashvili must resign in the next 24 hours, or the protests would continue. “He promised to unite Georgia, but today the only unity that we have is here – our unity on the goal of changing the authorities peacefully and not through violence… Change is inevitable and made possible by our unity… We should all tell the authorities: it’s enough, you should go, and let’s hold elections,” Alasania said.

Nino Burjanadze, formerly one of Saakashvili’s closest allies, was met with booing from some sections of the crowd, and apologized for standing by Saakashvili after the dispersal of protests in 2007. Now, she said, she was firmly behind the calls for him to resign. “I promise that together with you, I will fight to the end to achieve this goal,” said Burjanadze. “Saakashvili has failed to understand that a president who has lost a war and not even apologized should resign.”

As the crowd dispersed, the opposition leaders reiterated their promises to rally every day until Saakashvili resigns. “Those willing to stay can stay here together with the leaders, but the most important thing is that we should all gather here every day at 3 p.m.... and it will continue until Mikheil Saakashvili resigns,” said Levan Gachechiladze, one of the opposition politicians.

According to Alexander Rondeli, the president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies and one of Georgia’s leading analysts, the opposition needs to rethink its strategy. “I think the first part of the protest is ending now,” he said. “They were planning for 100,000, expecting 50,000 and in the end got 25,000. They need to stop simply stubbornly demanding Saakashvili’s resignation and go to talks with the government. You can’t negotiate by saying that the only thing to talk about is the president’s resignation.”

The date for today’s protests was symbolic, coming on Georgia’s Day of National Unity, and the 20th anniversary of events in Tbilisi in 1989, when Soviet soldiers dispersed a protesting crowd, killing 20. Saakashvili made a speech along with the opposition early in the morning, in a show of togetherness that was soon abandoned when the protest rally got underway. In comments to journalists afterward, Saakashvili played the patriotic card and appealed for national unity.

“No matter how much our positions and views might differ, we have one motherland, we need unity for the sake of this motherland,” he said. “We need to accomplish our struggle for the liberation of Georgia and for eventual establishment of a democratic, free, European state – something for which people have sacrificed themselves here under the Russian tanks and for which our soldiers sacrificed themselves in August.” He was referring both to April 1989 and to last year’s war with Russia over South Ossetia.

It is unclear what role the Russians have played in feelings toward Saakashvili among the population. Many Georgians were furious with Saakashvili’s handling of the war last year, and though most blame Russia for provoking the conflict, feel that Georgia behaved rashly. Saakashvili’s personal conduct during the war didn’t help. On the other hand, the Russian presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as statements like Dmitry Medvedev’s that Saakashvili is a “political corpse” whom the Russian leadership will never speak to, are likely to make Georgians feel the need to rally around Saakashvili.

“When you have the Russian occupiers 40 kilometers from Tbilisi and an economic crisis across the world that is also affecting Georgia in a major way, many people feel that now is not the best time to destabilize the country and the political system,” said Alexander Rondeli.

However, many of the opposition leaders criticized Saakashvili’s inability to obtain good relations with their northern neighbour in today’s speeches, and called for improved relations with Moscow.
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