Georgian President Agrees to Meet With Opposition Forces
TBILISI, Georgia – The Georgian president agreed Sunday to demands for a meeting with opposition forces, raising the prospect of an end to demonstrations that have crippled the capital for more than a month.
The talks between President Mikhail Saakashvili and his political opponents were planned for Monday afternoon, less than a week after a violent clash between police and opposition protesters that left dozens injured.
Opposition forces who have led a campaign of mostly peaceful protests in Tbilisi have insisted the president step down, saying he backtracked on democratic promises and provoked Georgia's disastrous war with Russia last year.
"Our demand remains unchanged — that is for Saakashvili to resign," opposition politician Georgy Khaindrava told The Associated Press on Sunday.
The protests that began April 9 have brought the Georgian capital to a standstill, blocking roads and obstructing entrances to government buildings.
Initially, the opposition drew tens of thousands of supporters, but public enthusiasm had waned until the violent clashes Wednesday injected new vigor into the opposition movement. More than 10,000 people attended Saturday's protest outside Parliament to call for Saakashvili's resignation.
On Sunday, a much smaller crowd of around 3,000 people gathered at the same spot. Opposition politician David Berdzenishvili hailed Saakashvili's decision to meet as "a first success."
Saakashvili, who has refused to step down before his term is up in 2013, is due to meet with four members of Georgia's disparate opposition coalition — Irakli Alasania, Levan Gachechiladze, Salome Zurabishvili and Kakha Shartava.
Nino Burdzhanadze, a former Saakashvili ally now among his most prominent opponents, declined to attend the meeting, saying she does not expect a positive outcome.
Experts said the opposition, which has been losing support due to its own divisions, has little choice politically but to maintain its key demand for Saakashvili to resign.
"It will be the opposition's funeral if they agree to any of the authorities' proposals, and if the president refuses to step down," Tbilisi-based political analyst Soso Tsiskarishvili said. The resignation call "is the cement that binds them together."
Many Tbilisi residents are growing tired with the political impasse, and are increasingly irked by the protests' disrupting traffic in Tbilisi.
National Security Adviser Eka Tkeshelashvili urged conciliation, saying the opposition should present a realistic strategy for resolving the political stalemate instead of insisting exclusively on the president's resignation.
Tkeshelashvili suggested the opposition become involved in other issues, such as constitutional change or electoral reform, or that it focus on the Tbilisi mayoral elections next year.
"If they see themselves as part of the political process, then that will be good," she said.
Many in Georgia's opposition helped sweep Saakashvili to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution, but became disenchanted as said the president's policies have undermined the judiciary, stifled media freedom and failed to improve democracy in the former Soviet republic on the Black Sea.
The opposition successfully tapped into public anger over Georgia's war with Russia in August, when it effectively ceded control over breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia to its northern neighbor.
A brief and bloodless mutiny at a tank base outside of Tbilisi last week raised further questions about Saakashvili's authority. The mutiny occurred on the eve of NATO military exercises in Georgia, which Russia has strongly condemned.