Georgia: Political Opposition Confronts Credibility Gap

This story was updated on 4/27/09 to clarify CRRC survey results.

What opposition leaders touted as "the final epoch" in their protest campaign to drive President Mikheil Saakashvili from power seems to have stalled before it got started. As a result, opposition leaders can expect to start facing questions about their own political futures in the coming days and weeks. But for now, they seem to be in a state of denial.

A permanent protest in Tbilisi has seen a steady decline in attendance since it got underway on April 9. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Opposition leaders attempted to re-energize the movement with a much publicized effort to bring in a supposed legion of supporters to Tbilisi from surrounding regions. But promised huge protest crowds failed to materialize. On April 23, for example, a modest gathering of about 1,000 milled around the empty street in front of the parliament building.

The opposition has relied on mock prison cells - usually empty -- to barricade a quarter of Tbilisi's central Rustaveli Avenue, blocking parliament, the popular Tbilisi Marriott Hotel and obstructing traffic. Protestors on the evening of April 23 positioned their mock prison cells in front of the Georgian Public Television headquarters, effectively shutting down traffic on the road. They demanded that the station's general director resign for what they term "unfair" and inadequate coverage of the demonstrations. Three members of the station's board of trustees have resigned as a result of the criticism, the news bulletin service Civil.ge reported.

Despite one popular daily's claim that the capital is now "paralyzed," city life appears undisturbed on streets unaffected by the barricades. Shops remain open even in the vicinity of the protest, although city buses have been diverted to other routes.

According to Kakha Kukava, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, protest organizers are committed to the barricade strategy. He told EurasiaNet that the picketing would "continue" and expand. "It will work," he said. Kukava and speakers during the main April 23 rally outside parliament repeatedly told crowds the picketing had forced the parliament to relocate outside of the city, eliciting cheers and whistles from otherwise subdued demonstrators.

However, Giorgi Kandelaki, a member of parliament for the governing United National Movement and a member of the parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, told EurasiaNet the claim was "opportunistic nonsense."

Parliament has continued to function, albeit in a "restricted" mode, since MPs are trying to avoid provoking confrontations with protesters, Kandelaki said. "We have entered the building several times," he insisted. He added that other meetings have taken place in other government structures. [Editor's Note: Giorgi Kandelaki formerly worked as a editorial associate for EurasiaNet.org].

Kandelaki stressed that the government is trying to show "patience and goodwill" toward the protests, even though the barricades violate the law. He noted that Georgian law allows major roads to be blocked by people, but not by empty cells -- a tactic currently used by the opposition during the day when the dozens of cells lining the main road and blocking side streets are vacant.

He added that the government is still "stubbornly" trying to engage the opposition in dialogue, and are ready to discuss "everything" except Saakashvili's resignation, the protesters' main demand.

During a speech at a factory outside Tbilisi on April 23, the president reiterated earlier offers to start talks with opposition leaders to "prevent further bloodshed as a result of either external aggression or civil confrontation."

Local analysts say that the Saakashvili administration's calm approach to the protests -- a marked change from the government crackdown on peaceful opposition rallies in 2007 -- is a sign the president has learned the value of restraint. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Professor Iago Kachkachishvili, head of the Sociology Department at Tbilisi State University, told EurasiaNet that Saakashvili has changed his public image a number of times since coming into power in 2003. The most significant change, Kachkachishvili noted, has occurred during the past 18 months. Since the crackdown on opposition demonstrations in 2007, Saakashvili has strived to be "as much of a populist as he can," Kachkachishvili said.

Hans Gutbrod, director of the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), said that Saakashvili's new approach is a reflection of a larger change in Georgian politics and society. He noted that nationwide surveys CRRC conducted showed increasing popular support for the president in 2008 up until December. During this time, the government "tailored its message in a sophisticated way, integrating focus group advice," he said.

However, there are few signs that the opposition is ready to listen to the government's current message. During the April 23 information briefing in front of parliament, supporters shouted "No! No!," when leaders asked if they were ready to talk with Saakashvili.

Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

Georgia: Political Opposition Confronts Credibility Gap

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