Thousands Rally Against Georgia’s Once Popular President - 2007

Protests begin in Tbilisi; former Georgian Minister of Defense, Irakli Okruashvili, surfaces in Germany and asks for the overthrow of Saakashvili? This is very significant. Why would Berlin/Washington allow it? Could it be that the West has negotiated the fate of the Tbilisi government with Moscow and has decided that it will sacrifice Saakashvili; perhaps for some concession regarding Iran? This can explain the reason why Saakashvili has been making overly childish pro-west and anti-Russian comments lately. Perhaps he realizes that his position in Tbilisi is getting weak and as a result he wants to 'over' impress his bosses in the West.



Thousands Rally Against Georgia’s Once Popular President


Tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the capital of Georgia on Friday, demanding Parliamentary elections for early next year and venting dissatisfaction with the country’s once enormously popular government. The rally, organized by a loose coalition of opposition parties, presented the strongest domestic political challenge thus far to President Mikheil Saakashvili, who rose to office after peaceful protests swept away the country’s post-Soviet old guard four years ago. Opposition demonstrators filled Rustaveli Avenue, the city’s main boulevard, and packed the entrance to Parliament, where they chanted anti-Saakashvili slogans and issued their demands. Among them was a call for the government to set Parliamentary elections for next spring and enter into negotiations for other power-sharing changes. Last year, Mr. Saakashvili and Parliament amended the Constitution to extend the Parliament’s term to next fall — officially, to align Parliament with the presidential election cycle — an act that the opposition said will make the legislature illegitimate when the term it was elected to expires in the spring.

“If we allow a sitting Parliament to extend its term for these months, this may happen again and again,” said Giorgi Khaindrava, a former government minister who is now in the opposition. “Changing their term while in office violates a fundamental principle of democratic systems.”

The demonstration signaled a significant degree of popular discontent with Mr. Saakashvili and his government, which inherited a country in near ruin four years ago and embarked upon an ambitious set of reforms. Mr. Saakashvili, a lawyer educated at Columbia University, has steered his post-Soviet country sharply toward the West, seeking admission to NATO and the European Union, while moving against corruption at home, especially in the police. He has often said he hoped to model his country’s development after the experience of the Eastern European countries that were once under the Kremlin’s yoke, and to bring democracy and free markets to the Caucasus, a region with a history of corrupt, brutal and autocratic governments. He has set new standards for education, increased tax collection and revenue-generation, improved the readiness of the country’s once feeble army and repaired Soviet-era infrastructure to the degree that the country, once plagued by blackouts, now has a reliable electricity supply. But some of the reforms have made him enemies, and he has alienated several prominent politicians, who find him domineering and abrasive. His opponents accuse him of hoarding and abusing power, and of running the nation through a clique that will neither tolerate dissent nor engage in dialogue with the opposition, which Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly made clear he despises and considers weak.

“The biggest shortcoming for us,” he said in an interview on Wednesday, “is that that we failed to grow up a real, mature opposition. The problem with them is that they have no real national leaders.”

The arrest last month of a former defense minister who had criticized Mr. Saakashvili and accused him of crimes also galvanized the opposition. The former minister later recanted on national television and was freed on bail, and left Georgia this week under circumstances still in dispute. The government insists that the former minister was guilty. But the case has raised questions about whether the police and prosecutors had received political instructions, which the government strongly denies. The government also faces pressure from rising prices and lingering underemployment, and over complaints about a weak judiciary that many government officials concede lacks independence and which the opposition says remains corrupt. Economic conditions remain difficult enough that many Georgians travel abroad for work. Western diplomats said their initial estimates put the crowd at 40,000 to 50,000 people; the opposition claimed to have assembled at least 100,000. Either number rivaled the size of the demonstrations that brought Mr. Saakashvili to power and vastly exceeded the government’s predictions. The demonstration, held on a day when the government was playing host to foreign diplomats in a conference exploring Georgia’s efforts to integrate with Europe, served as a potential international embarrassment to Mr. Saakashvili, who has been framed abroad as the region’s standard bearer of democracy.

Shota Utiashvili, a senior official in the Interior Ministry, said the government estimated that 35,000 people had shown up — enough to close vehicle access on the streets in front of the hotel where the foreign delegates were staying. Mr. Lenzi, the local director of the International Republican Institute, an organization affiliated with the Republican Party that promotes democracy, has worked closely with both the opposition and the government. He said the size, energy and timing of the rally showed that political issues and popular grievances had converged and posed the government with a challenge.

“This is definitely a wake-up call,” he said. “It is evident to everyone now that something has to give. There will have to be negotiations between the opposition and the government.”

Although the protests rivaled the size of those, known as the Rose Revolution, that toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003, most of the opposition leaders said they did not seek another revolution. Even some of the rally’s participants said the opposition had no leader of Mr. Saakashvili’s political stature or record. Instead, they said, they sought to demonstrate their strength to Mr. Saakashvili and to persuade him and his government that they must be more inclusive and open to compromise.

“We must struggle by evolution, not by revolutionary means,” Badri Patarkatsishvili, widely regarded as Georgia’s richest man, said by telephone before the rally. “I know my country does not need another revolution. It will not survive it.”

Mr. Patarkatsishvili said late last month he had decided to underwrite the opposition, and their many parties, with hopes of balancing the power in Georgia. Georgian officials have sharply criticized him, saying he is an oligarch with a criminal history, and that he resents the current government because it is honest and will not do his bidding.

“He wants a weak government, destabilized and corrupt, that he can exploit,” said Giga Bokeria, a prominent member of Parliament and one of Mr. Saakashvili’s closest allies. “That is his element, like Yeltsin’s Russia, where he can thrive. We are everything that is against his values.”

Speaking before the crowds took to the streets, Mr. Bokeria added that the fact that the demonstration would be allowed was a sign that Georgia differed from many of its post-Soviet neighbors, which have quieted open dissent with repression and large-scale police action. Georgia has an active opposition television station, owned by Mr. Patarkatsishvili, and has passed strong laws ensuring a free press — elements of civil society not evident in many other post-Soviet states. Mr. Bokeria also said that the discontent was a natural leveling of Mr. Saakashvili’s popularity after the revolution, when he won 97 percent of the vote. A decline was inevitable, he said.

“In a democracy you always have people against you, and rallies are an integral and normal part of having a democratic system,” he said. “Russia said, ‘You see, you have internal problems.’ That’s the difference. In Russia, it is an internal problem. To us, it is a democracy.”

The police presence during the rally was light, and officers were not wearing helmets or armor, or visibly armed. Many chatted amiably with demonstrators. But there were brief shoving matches between demonstrators and the police at the entrance to one government building, and allegations of police misconduct on the roads leading to the capital from the south and west, with several demonstrators saying that officers tried blocking cars and seizing keys and driving licenses. Mr. Utiashvili, the police official, said that he had received no complaints of police misconduct. “So far that information has not come to us, but if there are any complaints we will investigate them,” he said.


Georgia Leader Blames Protests on Russia

Georgia's president on Sunday accused Russia of fomenting mass protests against him, saying his powerful neighbor would benefit from instability in the country. Mikhail Saakashvili's remarks were his first response to three days of protests in the capital Tbilisi with more than 100,000 people calling for the president's resignation. "Consider the fact that this situation is taking place on the eve of elections in Russia, and the goal — to foment disorder in the country — is as clear as day," Saakashvili told Georgian Television. Four years after assuming power in the so-called Rose Revolution, Saakashvili is facing his the worst political crisis of his presidency. Now, as then, tens of thousands of people have amassed on the steps of parliament.

Sunday's crowd — estimated from 20,000 to 50,000 according to various sources — remained late in the evening, many waving flags and holding candles and shouting "Go away, Misha" — using the short form of the president's first name. Protesters initially demanded that the president revoke a decision to postpone parliamentary elections to fall instead of spring and reform the electoral system. But they later insisted the president resign. Saakashvili, however, was unmoved and said he would not reconsider the decision to postpone the ballot, which he made to save money. "There will be no giving in to dark forces," he said. Saakashvili has sought to decrease the influence of Russia, which dominated Georgia for most of the past two centuries, by looking westward and pushing his nation to seek membership in NATO and the European Union. That policy put him on a collision course with Russia. Under his leadership, Georgia has introduced market reforms and improved both its business climate and democratic credentials. President Bush even visited the Caucasus country in May 2005, an event that boosted Saakashvili's prestige at home and abroad. Saakashvili reiterated his promise to integrate the country into Western institutions on Sunday.

"We will see our path to the end," he said. "We will join NATO and achieve everything that aggravates our northern neighbor."

Popular discontent with Saakashvili erupted after Irakli Okruashvili, a hawkish former defense minister, accused the president of corruption and plotting to murder a prominent Georgian businessman. Okruashvili was arrested, but then freed on a multimillion-dollar bail after he retracted his allegations. Saakashvili said opposition forces had organized a "campaign of lies" against him and dismissed the accusations as a ploy to weaken the Georgian state. Saakashvili also announced that he would run for a second term in the presidential election scheduled for late 2008. "I am confident that I will win," he said.


In related news:

Georgia's former defence minister surfaces in Germany

Seated left to right, U.S. Charge d’Affaires a.i. Denny Robertson, Georgian Minister of Defense, Irakli Okruashvili, and General Levan Nikolaishvili

Georgian authorities threatened on Tuesday to launch an international manhunt for President Mikhail Saakashvili's arch foe after he surfaced in Germany and accused Georgia's leader of corruption. The television interview by former defence minister Irakly Okruashvili injected fresh momentum into opposition protests — which have attracted thousands since Friday — calling for the resignation of injected fresh momentum into opposition protests Saakashvili for corruption and economic mismanagement. “If Okruashvili does not appear in Georgia on the first demand of the Prosecutor-General's office, his 10 million lari ($6-million U.S.) bail will be transferred to the state budget and a search for him begun,” deputy prosecutor-general Nika Gvaramia told a news briefing. Outside the parliament in central Tbilisi protesters gathered for a fifth successive day and some demonstrators joined four opposition politicians on a hunger strike to press for the president's resignation. Fiery nationalist Mr. Okruashvili first took aim at Mr. Saakashvili in September, alleging that his former boss had plotted the murder of a businessman and had overseen massive corruption. His charges, vigorously denied by Mr. Saakashvili, galvanized the previously disunited opposition but also led to his arrest. A few days later, looking tired and dazed, Mr. Okruashvili was released on bail after retracting all his allegations in a televised statement.

On Monday, in his first public comments since his release from jail, Mr. Okruashvili said in a broadcast from Germany that he had been pressured into retracting the allegations, insisted once again that they were true, urged Mr. Saakashvili to resign and said that he was now a political refugee. All lies, Mr. Gvaramia said. “Okruashvili's statement that he had been pressured while in jail is another lie,” he said. Mr. Saakashvili has flatly rejected the opposition's demands for his resignation and for early parliamentary elections. He says the protests are the work of “dark forces,” hinting that former imperial master Russia is behind them.

Moscow denies involvement. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described Mr. Saakashvili's comments as a “farce” on Tuesday, adding: “I believe that the Georgian nation deserves a better future, and in this it can have Russia's support.” Thousands have protested in the Georgian capital Tbilisi since Friday in the biggest challenge to Mr. Saakashvili's authority since he came to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution. “Hundreds and hundreds of people are ready to go on hunger strike in order to force Saakashvili from power,” opposition leader Kakha Kukava said. The opposition's main accusations against Mr. Saakashvili are that his government is corrupt and authoritarian. It also says the benefits of economic growth have not been felt by ordinary Georgians. Most critics do not question his pro-Western line.


Georgian Opposition activists ask to take Saakashvili to Russia

Some 50 representatives of Georgia's United Youth Movement and the Institute of Equality picketed the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and a building of the Georgian Interior Ministry on Tuesday. The activists, whose only offensive means were whistles and posters, were whistling at in- or out-going officials, who had to wriggle their way through a live corridor, between the posters reading "Georgia Without Violence", "Georgia Without President," "Shame on Those Who Aren't With People." Also on Tuesday, some 20 members of Opposition youth movements picketed the Russian Embassy, stating that they were "asking Igor Ivanov to take Mikhail Saakashvili to Russia." In November 2003, as the "Revolution of the Roses" peaked, the then Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov arrived in Tbilisi, and actually became the mediator at the talks between President Eduard Shevardnadze and the Opposition led by Mikhail Saakashvili. Many in Georgia believe that Ivanov also played an important role in Shevardnadze stepping down early. Some also believe that Ivanov persuaded head of the Adzharia Autonomous Republic A. Abashidze to leave Batumi, following days of protests by many thousand supporters of the Opposition, who were calling for his resignation.


Georgia claims 3 Russian military aircraft violated its air space

Military officials said three Russian military airplanes violated Georgia's airspace over the breakaway region of South Ossetia on Sunday morning. Zaza Gogava, head of Georgia's joint forces command, said the Russian aircraft flew 3 kilometers (2 miles) into Georgian territory in the Kazbeg region of South Ossetia for one minute, according to Rustavi-2 television. Russian military officials denied the accusation. Air Force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky told the Interfax news agency that two aircraft and two helicopters flew as part of a military convoy operating in the region, but that they were 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the Georgian border. In August, Georgia claimed Russian Su-24 bombers entered its airspace and fired a missile, which did not explode but landed near a village house. Russia heatedly denied the claim. The dispute created new tensions in already strained relations. South Ossetia maintains close ties with Russia and has a contingent of Russian peacekeepers. President Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power in 2003, has vowed to bring South Ossetia back under Georgian control.


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