A coalition of 13 Georgian political opposition parties will take to the streets of Tbilisi Thursday to stage open-ended demonstrations aimed at unseating President Mikheil Saakashvili, whom they accuse of betraying the promise of 2003's "Rose Revolution," building a personal dictatorship, causing mass impoverishment, and leading the country into a disastrous war with Russia last summer.
The prospect of mass protests has raised fears about the stability of Georgia, a troubled nation of 5 million straddling the Caucasus Mountains. Despite cyclical street revolts since gaining independence from the USSR in 1991, Georgia has never yet managed to effect a constitutional handover of power from one president to the next.
Mr. Saakashvili's opponents say they will bring as many as 100,000 people into Tbilisi's main street Thursday, the biggest display of public anger since three weeks of rolling demonstrations forced former president Eduard Shevardnadze to resign nearly six years ago.
But experts say that the opposition groups are deeply divided over goals and tactics, while Saakashvili, who was reelected to a five-year term in 2008, holds a strong position. If the young, US-trained leader does not give in to the temptation to use violence against the demonstrators – as happened in November 2007, when Saakashvili ordered police to crush protests and shut down critical media outlets, triggering a sharp political backlash – he has good chances of riding out this storm, they say.
"This is a power struggle, part of the turbulent political processes begun by the Rose Revolution, when a young, ambitious and arrogant [Saakashvili] came to power and began radical reforms," says Alexander Rondeli, president of the independent Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. "He managed to create many enemies for himself because of his stubborness and revolutionary methods ... these [reforms] were painful for society; social discontent has been growing constantly. It's difficult to adapt to change."
Former allies oppose Saakashvili
The roster of opposition leaders includes several former close allies of Saakashvili who have turned against him amid charges that he was concentrating too much power in his own hands, fixing elections, lavishing rewards upon his business cronies, and secretly plotting a military adventure to retake Georgia's separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which ended in defeat last August.
Among them are:
• Former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, head of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia, who is calling for indefinite protests until her former comrade from the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili, steps down.
• Ex-Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, who heads the Georgia's Way party.
"If the (Rose Revolution) was called the democratic revolution, then today the same right exists to repeat it," Mr. Okruashvili said in a statement broadcast on Tbilisi-based Maestro TV last week. "It is up to the Georgian people. Our duty is to remove Saakashvili from power, as painlessly as possible."
Even Mr. Shevardnadze, the former president, lent his support to the demonstrations last week, telling journalists that Saakashvili should step down because "it would be the right thing to do."
A late February survey conducted by the International Republican Institute found that 59 percent of Georgians think the country is "going in the wrong direction," up from 42 percent last September, while 62 percent said their household finances had worsened in the past two months. But in the same poll only 28 percent backed opposition calls for Saakashvili to resign while 51 percent said Georgia needed "unity and patience" in the face of its serious challenges.
Some politicians are warning that the Georgian habit of overthrowing its leaders, begun when Shevardnadze drove out the country's first elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, after a bitter civil war in 1992, could be the path to national self-destruction.
"We already have some experience in democratic politics, and what we need now is dialogue," says Guram Chakvadze, a deputy of the National Democratic Party, a minority in parliament, which is dominated by the pro-Saakashvili United National Movement. "Today the political system is inadequate to meet the standards of a normal democratic state. We want balance, a better distribution of power. But the problem is that every five years we get a president who is elected with 90 percent of the votes, and it always ends badly."
Democracy slipping, says report
The annual global survey by the New York-based Freedom House found that Georgia "slid backwards" in a few key democratic indices in 2008, such as independent media and electoral process, but still had a higher freedom rating than most other post-Soviet states.
But some Georgian experts take a dimmer view. "The human rights situation is worse today than it was under Shevardnadze," says Nana Sumbadze, codirector of the independent Institute for Policy Studies in Tbilisi. "Last year's presidential elections were faked. The [subsequent] parliamentary elections were manipulated; the media was controlled and opposition parties had no voice on TV. The public mood [about the elections] was dark," she says.
Last month, Georgian authorities arrested seven members of Ms. Burjanadze's party on charges of illegal weapons possession. Georgian intelligence chief Gela Bezhuashvili alleged they were part of a Moscow-backed conspiracy aiming to "remove Georgian authorities through internal disorder and destabilization."
Burjanadze said the allegations are part of a desperate smear campaign by pro-Saakashvili officials. "This government has very little time left to rule, so remain calm and don't be provoked," she said in an early April statement addressed to supporters.
Olive branch meets cool reception
This week, Saakashvili held out an olive branch to his opponents, offering dialogue but no concessions on their demands for his resignation or early elections for a new president and parliament.
"We must talk to even the most radical sections of the opposition, no matter how harsh or irreconcilable its demands might be," Saakashvili said. "Georgia simply doesn't have any other alternative."
But Levan Gachelchiladze, the united opposition candidate who came second to Saakashvili in what he claims was a rigged 2007 election, responded that there is nothing to talk about except the president's departure.
"Saakashvili must take account of the peoples' will and resign," he told journalists. "We want it to be calm and peaceful, but he must go."