|OPPOSITION READY FOR DIALOGUE -- ON ITS TERMS|
|April 16, 2009|
After seven days of protests for the resignation of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, some opposition leaders tell EurasiaNet that they are ready for dialogue with the government, even while others insist that nothing short of Saakashvili’s resignation will meet their goal.
"[W]e are ready for the meeting. We have this agenda item which is resignation, but also we are ready to listen to the government," Irakli Alasania, leader of the Alliance for Georgia coalition, told EurasiaNet. "We need to launch the discussion. That is very important -- to have the meeting."
On April 15, after high-ranking members of his ruling party, the United National Movement, offered a possible coalition government and direct mayoral elections, Saakashvili called on opposition leaders to "stop fighting" for positions and "sit together." The statement followed an April 10 offer for direct dialogue.
The so-called "radical opposition," which includes former Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze and former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, has flatly refused any offer for dialogue short of Saakashvili’s resignation.
On April 15, Zourabishvili told supporters she had "wasted too much time" on dialogue with the government -- a reference to discussions that followed the disputed 2008 presidential elections.
Other opposition leaders have also turned away from negotiations; on April 10, Gia Maisashvili, a former presidential candidate, enticed the crowd to curse Saakashvili and to degrade the president’s mother using a particularly rude Georgian colloquialism.
Both Alasania and Zourabichvili, however, brush away concerns that there is a split within the opposition over whether or not to talk with the government.
"No, we are united and the demand is clear. We are planning together how to proceed in the future," Alasania said. He stressed that all the opposition parties involved in the protests signed a "joint declaration" in favor of dialogue.
Contradicting her earlier comments to rally participants, Zourabichvili also told EurasiaNet that the opposition is ready to talk. No one among the parties is "a Judas" who will break with the group over the question, she added.
"We clearly talk different languages, we clearly are different people, but we remain united. . ." she said. "We are ready to meet, we are ready to present our demand and we are ready to listen to what is the answer of Saakashvili and bring it to the people."
But, according to local analysts, the clock is ticking for the opposition to make its move. Political scientist Koba Turmanidze argues that opposition leaders are playing a political game that could backfire -- hoping that supporters continue to rally against the government as they hold out for better concessions.
"By keeping people out [on the streets], they want to achieve a kind of political meeting with Saakashvili and his team and kind of publicly condemning them and then achieving a better deal for themselves," Turmanidze said.
Yet the longer the protests drag out without any tangible result, the bigger the risk that the opposition will either lose street supporters or dissolve amidst infighting between the protests’ 13 participating parties.
"Their problem is time and too much diversity. . .’" Turmanidze continued. "If there are still supporters in the streets, they cannot go right away to negotiate. If there are no supporters, they cannot go to negotiate anyway because there is no point. They are in a rough position."
Opposition leaders have added some variety to the mix; prison cages and a few tents have gone up outside of the presidential residence and public television headquarters. Another cage made a one-day appearance outside of the government chancellery on April 15.
Yet by making Saakashvili’s resignation its defining slogan, the opposition has left itself little room for maneuver, argued Giorgi Khutsishvili, a political analyst who has been involved in talks with the European Union and the opposition about identifying a framework for discussions.
"Incompatible conditions [make it] very hard to start negotiations," he said. "The government is not ready to offer proposals that would be interesting for them."
Alasania stated that the opposition is aware that the protests cannot last forever.
"I do believe at a certain point we have to reach the agreement that the discussion should be taken from the street to the relevant negotiating tables," he said.
The week of April 20, when protest organizers have promised to begin bussing in supporters from the regions, "will be crucial for the demonstration," he added. Rallies will continue through the April 18-19 Georgian Orthodox Easter weekend, although party leaders may not address the crowd.
Analyst Turmanidze believes that ongoing street attacks by unidentified men against opposition supporters could add to the political pressure and potentially, prompt more people to join the rallies next week from sheer outrage.
The Public Defender’s Office states that there have been five incidents of opposition activists beaten after protest rallies since April 10. The government maintains it is looking into all the incidents; civil society groups like the Georgian Young Lawyers Association have accused the authorities of not "reacting" to the alleged crimes.
In remarks to journalists on April 16, the European Union’s special envoy to the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, tagged the lack of trust as one of the largest obstacles to starting talks between the government and opposition. Semneby met on Thursday individually with opposition leaders in a bid to find some bridge for dialogue with the government.
"Once that trust starts to be reestablished, then I think there are possibilities for a dialogue to take place, a dialogue that this country so dearly needs," he said.
Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.
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