The political crisis in Georgia has shown the first signs of receding as opposition figures have overwhelmingly welcomed President Saakashvili’s decision to call snap presidential elections for January 5.
There was a celebratary mood late on November 8 at the Republican Party headquarters, which hosted a session of the Coordinating Council – an ad-hoc body set up more than a month ago by ten opposition parties to coordinate the campaign for parliamentary elections in spring, instead of late 2008.
“We have been offering President Saakashvili a painless solution - parliamentary elections in spring,” Davit Usupashvili, leader of the Republican Party, said. “But Saakashvili’s and his inner circle’s stubborness and the authorities’ absolutely inappropriate response to peaceful demonstrations have trapped him in a very difficult situation. I think at the moment President Saakashvili has found the best solution and it is, I think, good both for him and the country.”
“This is a victory of the people; this is a demonstration of the people's unity and this is a huge success,” MP Giorgi Tsagareishvili of Movement for United Georgia Party, said. “We should capitalise on this success and win the January 5 elections. It is absolutely unimaginable that Saakashvili will be re-elected.”
“This was an important success for the Georgian people, who did not step back despite huge pressure from the authorities,” MP Zviad Dzidziguri of the Conservative Party said.
“The president’s recent address is of historic importance,” Salome Zourabichvili, ex-foreign minister and leader of Georgia’s Way Party, said. “This was the only right decision and the country will definitely benefit.”
She also said that the international community “has played a vital role” in this process. “Our western partners have demonstrated that they are not friends of one particular government, but are friends of the entire country and Georgian democracy,” Zourabichvili added.
President Saakashvili will, in accordance with the constitution, have to resign 45 days ahead of polling day – on November 22.
“This was the only sensible decision Saakashvili has made recently,” Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party said. “It is unfortunate that Saakashvili put himself in this situation, wherein he will have to step down on November 22 – on the very same day four years ago when the Georgian people brought him to power. For me, as someone who played an active role in the Rose Revolution, this is a bitter reality.”
Thousands of opposition supporters led by Mikheil Saakashvili stormed Parliament on November 22, 2003, followed by then President Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation the next day.
Davit Usupashvili, although welcoming the “apparent success” (the decision to call elections), said there were still “many issues that need to be clarified” with the authorities. The composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC), he said, was of particular importance.
“But the top priority still is the lifting of emergency rule,” he added. President Saakashvili said the state of emergency would be removed “in a few days.”
Selecting a single opposition candidate for the upcoming presidential election is also a priority for the opposition parties. Usupashvili suggested this would not prove insurmountable, as it would be much easier to maintain opposition unity ahead of presidential polls, as opposed to parliamentary ones.
“The major precondition for a single opposition candidate should be that this person must understand that if we win he should foster constitutional amendments that would lead to the establishment of a parliamentary system,” Usupashvili said.
The ten opposition parties which led the recent protest campaign signed a manifesto on October 17, which, among other principles, includes a commitment to support the establishment of a parliamentary system.
Two opposition parties – the New Rights and Industrialists - both outside of the ten-party opposition bloc – have not, however, signed the manifesto.
MP Davit Gamkrelidze, the New Rights leader, has also welcomed President Saakashvili’s decision to hold snap elections and has reaffirmed his intention to run.
Other opposition politicians with declared presidential ambitions include Salome Zourabichvili, leader of Georgia’s Way Party and Gia Maisashvili, leader of Party of Future. Zourabichvili, however, is ineligible due to a fifteen year residency requirement. She has only lived in Georgia since 2003.
Although Irakli Okruashvili, the ex-defense minister and one-time ally of Saakashvili’s and subsequent foe, has never formally indicated any presidential ambitions, he had previously been regarded as potential presidential candidate. Okruashvili, however, will not be eligible, as the minimum age for a would-be president is 35. He will only turn 35 in November 2008.
Another potential candidate is Badri Patarkatsishvili, a business tycoon and bitter government opponent. He is legally eligible to run, but some lawmakers from the ruling party said on November 8 that his recent activities “may contain elements of criminal wrongdoings.” Patarkatsishvili had financially backed the recent anti-government protest rallies, which were subsequently described by President Saakashvili as a Russian-masterminded plot to destabilize Georgia.
Meanwhile, the government crackdown and the imposition of emergency rule has elicited international condemnation.
The NATO reaction, although not necessarily the most severe, has had the greatest impact on Tbilisi, considering its foreign policy priority. The Secretary General of the alliance said the imposition of emergency rule and the closure of media outlets were “of particular concern and not in line with Euro-Atlantic values.”
Although the U.S. State Department hailed the decision to call snap elections, it also said: “We continue to urge the Government of Georgia to lift the state of emergency and restore all media broadcasts.”
Louise Arbour, the UN human rights commissioner, said she was “particularly worried over reports of disproportionate use of force… and the beating of demonstrators.”
Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, urged the Georgian authorities to allow Imedi and Kavkasia TV stations to resume broadcasting.