|Once Silent, Georgian Opposition Begins to Question Saakashvili|
|September 13, 2008|
September 13, 2008
By SAMANTHA SHIELDS
TBILISI, Georgia -- Largely silent since last month's war with Russia, critics of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are questioning his handling of the crisis.
Nino Burjanadze, once a staunch Saakashvili ally, called at a press conference Friday for an independent commission to examine what happened leading up to and during the five-day war, which left Georgia's army and economy battered and large chunks of its territory under Russian occupation.
"There is a time for tough questions," Ms. Burjanadze said. "Of course, what happened was a Russian provocation, but we need to know whether it was possible to not yield to this provocation."
So far, only a few of Mr. Saakashvili's critics are calling for new elections. Ms. Burjanadze's comments Friday mark a shift as she is considered one of the most likely alternatives to Mr. Saakashvili. She said she is in intensive consultations about the formation of a political party but held back from saying when it would be launched.
Ms. Burjanadze was part of the team that helped inspire 2003's peaceful Rose Revolution which ousted Eduard Shevardnadze and swept Mr. Saakashvili to power. She has twice bridged a gap for Mr. Saakashvili by serving as Georgia's acting president. But after four years as speaker of Parliament, she resigned just before parliamentary elections in May, saying the administration had made mistakes. In July, she set up a privately funded think tank.
Mr. Saakashvili has more than four years left of his presidential term and he's vowed to stay on. He won January's snap election in the first round of voting, and his United National Movement party won a majority of seats in the May parliamentary vote.
Because Russian officials have made no secret of their desire to see the pro-Western president removed, opposition leaders are in a bit of a bind. The opposition called a patriotic moratorium on criticizing Mr. Saakashvili during the war and its immediate aftermath.
"We believe the resignation of Saakashvili right now is not the right demand from the opposition, it would look like the implementation of Putin's plan," said Republican party leader David Usupashvili, referring to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. His party is pushing for early parliamentary elections.
But some politicians are questioning Mr. Saakashvili's decision to send troops into the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia on the night of Aug. 7, precipitating a massive Russian counterattack that decimated the Georgian army. Russia has since granted recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian region, as independent countries, saying they will never be returned to Georgian control.
The war has left an estimated 100,000 Georgians refugees, with key infrastructure like bridges badly damaged in areas near the fighting. Foreign investors, a key force behind the country's economic recovery, have been scared off.
While Ms. Burjanadze kept her criticisms veiled Friday, other opposition leaders have been more outspoken. Though their efforts to oust Mr. Saakashvili before the war were unsuccessful, they've renewed their push now.
David Gamkrelidze, the leader of the New Right Party, called earlier this week for Mr. Saakashvili's resignation and early parliamentary and presidential elections.
The Movement for a United Georgia Party is also calling for snap parliamentary and presidential elections.
"This is the only way to bring the country out of crisis," said party leader Eka Beselia. "We think there will be an independent investigation by competent organs to ascertain the truth and there will be early elections," she added .
For the moment, the focus of political attention in Georgia remains on Russian troops who are occupying Kremlin-defined "security zones" around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Under a French-brokered peace plan, Moscow agreed to withdraw those troops by Oct. 15, provided the European Union sends in civilian monitors to take over. The EU wants the monitors to be able to move throughout Georgia, including the separatist territories under Russian control. Russian officials have flatly rejected that idea.
In Vienna, meanwhile, weeks of talks aimed at an agreement on terms for the deployment of around 80 new military monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to Georgia broke down Friday over the question of whether they should be allowed to enter South Ossetia, where a team of eight monitors has been deployed for years.
Antti Turunen, Finland's ambassador to the OSCE, said Russian and Georgian negotiators had returned home for new instructions after the talks failed to produce a result Friday morning. He said he expects them to resume Monday.
-- Marc Champion in Brussels contributed to this article.
Permanent link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122126757442330995.html
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