The nine-party opposition coalition has called off a planned hunger strike and agreed to resume talks with the authorities early next week.
The decision, which came after heated internal discussions, was made after “receiving firm guarantees” that all key opposition demands would be met by the authorities, Levan Gachechiladze of the nine-party coalition announced on February 22.
The decision, however, was not taken unanimously, with some parties, including the Conservative Party, Movement for United Georgia, the Georgian Troupe and the National Forum, insisting on maintaining a hard-line stance.
Speaking to hundreds of supporters, who were gathered outside Parliament for a pre-planned protest rally, Gachechiladze acknowledged that many within the coalition were against calling off the planned hunger strike. He was, however, he said, willing to personally assume responsibility for the consequences of the decision.
“I’ve spent all night on the phone with Nino Burjanadze [the parliamentary chairperson, who is in Vienna attending the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly],” Gachechiladze, in the presence of other leaders from the coalition, told supporters outside Parliament. “We have decided to call off the hunger strike. I have received firm guarantees from the authorities, from Nino Burjanadze, that political prisoners will be released; the public TV will have a new director general on February 26 and before March 15 a new chairman of the Central Election Commission will be appointed. And also [firm guarantees have been received] that all constitutional and legislative amendments will be passed that will bring free elections; free elections in turn will bring a new government.”
The Republican Party, seen as the most moderate within the coalition, was instrumental in having the hunger strike called off and resuming talks.
“For now it looks like our demands will be met,” Davit Usupashvili, the leader of the Republican Party, said. “We are pleased with this decision [to call off the hunger strike], because we believe that it will be possible to achieve much more this way [dialogue with the authorities].”
“A hunger strike is an effective form of mounting pressure, but as we have received certain guarantees… we should explore other methods, including dialogue, as well,” MP Davit Zurabishvili of the Republican Party said. “Until they are exhausted we should use them. We will participate in the parliamentary session in order to pass legislative amendments [related with the upcoming elections].”
It emerged that the Conservative Party had wanted to continue with protests and the planned hunger strike. "Although I and some of my friends had a different position, the National Council [of bloc leaders] decided by majority vote," MP Kakha Kukava of the Conservative Party said. "We will continue our struggle to achieve the release of all political prisoners and for genuinely free and fair parliamentary elections."
Movement for United Georgia, a party set up by Irakli Okruashvili, a former defense minister, was also against. “We also had a different position, because no tangible results have been delivered by the authorities so far; so it is impossible to trust their verbal promises. But the Council has decided and we do not disassociate with the Council,” Eka Beselia of the Movement for United Georgia said.
The decision was, however, greeted with little enthusiasm by many opposition supporters gathered outside Parliament for a pre-planned protest rally. Many complained that the opposition had failed to properly press for their demands. Others were more supportive, welcoming the resumption of talks.
The New Rights Party, although remaining aloof from the bloc, signed the January 29 opposition memorandum. It has welcomed the decision to resume talks.
“I was against this form of protest [hunger strike],” MP Davit Gamkrelidze, the leader of the New Rights Party, told protesters outside Parliament. “We should return to dialogue with a precondition that we will have a new board of the public TV and constitutional amendments by Tuesday [February 26] and new election administrations [by mid-March]… I promise I will be the first to stand here beside you [in protest] if the authorities try to drag out the process again.”
The nine-party coalition’s decision signals a softening of its initial hard-line stance towards proposals outlined in a ruling party February 14 memorandum.
The nine-party coalition warned last week that it would begin “a mass hunger strike” and create ‘a town of tents’ in Tbilisi and other towns if three key demands were not met by February 22: the release of those arrested in connection with the November 7 events (six have already been released and Burjanadze said on February 21 that others would also be released soon) and the dismissal of Tamar Kintsurashvili, the head of the public TV, and Levan Tarkhnishvili, the chairman of the Central Election Commission. Although the bloc has acknowledged that these demands are not necessarily crucial, they need to show immediate political gains to their supporters, who, they maintain, are even more radical in their demands.