The opposition threw down the gauntlet to the government, saying a mass hunger strike would start from February 22 and warned it would “turn Georgia into a town of tents” if its demands were not met.
Speaking to thousands of supporters outside Parliament, MP Levan Gachechiladze of the nine-party opposition coalition said that next week the coalition would “mobilize” volunteers willing to go on hunger strike.
“We need two groups of volunteers,” he told the crowd. “One group to go on hunger strike and another group to protect the hunger strikers.”
He then continued: “We need some time in order to mobilize volunteers throughout Georgia. Next Friday [February 22] in all major towns, and particularly in Tbilisi, a nation-wide hunger strike will begin, which will last until final victory is reached. Next Friday, all of Georgia will turn into a town of tents.”
“Yes this is an ultimatum,” Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican Party said. “They [the authorities] have two options: either to deliver tangible results regarding our demands, or to have tension in towns throughout Georgia.”
Following Gachechiladze’s speech, protesters dispersed peacefully. Earlier at the rally Gachechiladze, who ran for the presidency in the January 5 election, told supporters that the authorities were unwilling to compromise, having failed to meet opposition demands.
“The deadline set by us and other opposition parties for the authorities expired today. These are our, your and Georgia’s demands aimed at averting civil confrontation in the country,” he said. “We should have freedom in elections, the judiciary and in broadcasting. Yesterday we received proposals from the authorities, but they in fact amounted to a display of contempt for us. This [the government's memorandum outlining the proposals] is just an empty piece of paper devoid of results.”
Gia Tortladze, the leader of ex-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili’s party, Movement for United Georgia, told the protesters that the rallies would continue because that was “what the authorities are afraid of.” “These protest rallies will force the authorities to take appropriate decisions,” he added.
“We are again gathered here, on Rustaveli Avenue [the main venue for protests in recent Georgian history], where Georgia’s fate has often been determined. And now we must do the same again from here,” MP Kakha Kukava of the Conservative Party said. “There has been no compromise, not a single step taken towards the Georgian people by the authorities. The Nation Movement [the ruling party] and Saakashvili should quit and leave this country.”
He said the opposition had pinned its hopes on Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze during the negotiations. “We hoped that she at least would have shown more conscience than Giga Bokeria, Givi Targamadze [ruling party lawmakers] and Mikheil Saakashvili have. I still want to tell her: don't be irresponsible; come down here and say with whom you stand - with the criminal regime or with your people?”
Opposition politicians have suggested that possible agreement with the authorities – signs of which initially emerged during the talks with the parliamentary chairperson – was scuttled by hardliners within the ruling party led by MP Giga Bokeria. The ruling party has strongly denied the allegation.
“Opposition forces are uniting and other opposition forces are joining them. The entire opposition is united,” MP Levan Berdzenishvili told protesters at the rally. “This struggle will not finish unless they [the authorities] make concessions; afterwards we will say goodbye to them [the ruing party and the authorities] in a civilized manner.”
The Labor Party and New Rights Party – the latter was not involved in last November’s anti-government demonstrations – have also joined the protest rally. The newly set up Christian-Democratic Party, led by former Imedi journalist Giorgi Targamadze, was also there.
“The authorities hoped that the opposition would have disintegrated. But on the contrary, we have become even stronger as more opposition parties have joined us,” Koba Davitashvili, leader of Party of People, said. “All our demands are aimed at only one thing: a change of government, not with revolution or a coup, but elections.”
The nine-party opposition coalition - formed last October - announced at the rally on February 15 that it would run on a joint ticket in the parliamentary elections this spring.
“Today I want you to know,” MP Kakha Kukava said, “that the united opposition has decided to remain united and to run in the parliamentary elections on a joint ticket in order to achieve final victory together with you.”
The coalition unites nine opposition parties: Republican; Conservative; Georgia’s Way; Freedom; On Our Own; the Georgian Troupe (Kartuli Dasi); Party of People; National Forum and the Movement for United Georgia. The coalition also includes two individual opposition politicians: MP Levan Gachechiladze and Giorgi Khaindrava, a former state minister for conflict resolution issues.
MP Davit Gamkrelidze, the leader of the opposition New Rights Party, which has also joined the protest rallies, had earlier called on all opposition parties to unite. He said it was necessary to run on a joint ticket in the elections “to defeat the authorities.” It is, however, still unclear whether a broad, all-inclusive opposition election bloc will be possible.
Meanwhile, the ruling party said that the opposition’s protest rallies were nothing more than preparation for the election campaign.
“Their real goal has never been to achieve concrete results [from the negotiation process with the authorities],” MP Pavle Kublashvili of the ruling party said on February 15. “Their goal was to launch an election campaign and it seems that they think holding street protests the best way of campaigning. That is their decision.”