Georgia verges on repeat turmoil

More than 50,000 protesters turned out in the streets of Tbilisi Friday, demonstrating against the government that rose to power on a wave of reformist hopes in 2003.

Thousands of antigovernment demonstrators protested for a third day in front of Georgia's parliament Sunday in what could become an opposition-led repeat of the Rose Revolution that brought down an unpopular leader and swept current President Mikhail Saakashvili to power on a wave of reformist hopes.

The 10-party opposition coalition, formed just a month ago to protest planned changes to the electoral system, suprised most observers by drawing more than 50,000 supporters onto the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, on Friday. Repeat rallies over the weekend were much smaller, but suggested the movement might have staying power. Though some opposition leaders held out the possibility of compromise, others began demanding Mr. Saakashvili's resignation.

"I think Saakashvili has already lost his chance," says Georgy Khaindrava, a former minister in Saakashvili's government turned opposition leader. "No one wants this government; everyone wants a new one."

The upsurge suggests that Georgia's dismal history of turbulent political change might be on the verge of repeating itself. Since the tiny mountainous republic of 5 million gained independence from the Soviet Union, it has had three leaders, each of whom came in on an intense wave of popularity only to run afoul of surging public discontent.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia, elected with 87 percent support in 1991, was killed in a civil war that brought the popular former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze to power the next year. Mr. Shevardnadze appeared to stabilize Georgia and put it on the path to democracy, but he was accused of rigging a parliamentary election and forced to resign in the Rose Revolution. The US-educated Saakashvili, once a protege of Shevardnadze, won subsequent presidential polls with a 97 percent majority.

But Saakashvili's reforms have since managed to anger Georgians from almost all walks of life.

"I don't like the conditions of the past four years," said Manana Ravtadze, a child-care worker at Saturday's rally. "I want our president to stand in front of the people and tell them of his mistakes."

Zero-tolerance crime legislation has put large numbers of young people in prison for minor offenses. Privatization has led to complaints by small property holders that their rights are being violated. Intellectuals worry about a perceived erosion of democratic rights. Food and energy prices are climbing, while unemployment remains stubbornly high.

"[The protests are] not just about politics, it's about the people's anger," says Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the moderate Republican Party. "What Saakashvili managed in four years was to create the feeling that the president was against each person individually."

The opposition coalition was formed a month ago after the arrest of former Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili, who was charged with "political negligence and corruption" after he formed an opposition party and accused Saakashvili of plotting to murder unnamed key opponents. Mr. Okruashvili later recanted, was released on $6 million bail, and reportedly left the country last week to seek "medical attention" in Germany.

The opposition is demanding the release of what they term political prisoners. It also wants to halt Saakashvili's plans to postpone spring parliamentary polls until next fall,and make other electoral changes opposition leaders regard as "undemocratic." The Republican Party favors abolishing the presidency altogether and turning Georgia into a British-style parliamentary republic.

Though the opposition lacks a single leader of the stature Saakashvili enjoyed during the Rose Revolution, and popular grievances seem less acute, the tactic of rolling street demonstrations threatens once again to destabilize Georgia's fragile democracy, some experts warn.

"What's happening now is beyond any civilized framework. The opposition is using a previously tested system of overthrowing government, one that does not bring credibility to our country," says Alexander Rondeli, president of the independent Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. "Like most post-Soviet republics, Georgia is not ready for democracy."

Many in the weekend crowds said they do not want to overthrow Saakashvili, but just force him to address their grievances. As of Sunday evening, Saakashvili had yet to meet with opposition leaders or speak publicly about the crisis.

"We're ready to stay here a long time. We want a conversation with Saakashvili," said David Bayindurashvili, a college student, at Saturday's rally.

Despite the calls for Saakashvili to go, some opposition chiefs were still holding out the possibility of compromise on Sunday.

"[Saakashvili] has to choose between his people and his inner circle," Davit Usupashvili, Republican Party leader, told Imedi TV, a station owned by Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili.

A former Saakashvili supporter who now financially backs the opposition, Mr. Patarkatsishvili told the Financial Times last week, "I don't think my country would survive another revolution."

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