- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

TBILISI, GEORGIA (AP) - For seven days and counting, thousands of demonstrators have blocked the streets of Georgia’s capital demanding President Mikhail Saakashvili resign.

They have thrown carrots at his residence and released a rabbit onto its grounds, mocked him in acts of political theater and pitched tents outside his gates for all-night vigils.

Saakashvili, the brash and impulsive president who led Georgia into a disastrous war against Russia, so far has kept his cool and allowed the demonstrations to go ahead. It may be all he needs to do to fend off the challenge.

But the risk remains that the 41-year-old president will suddenly snap or that the opposition, growing desperate, will provoke a violent government crackdown.

While Saakashvili still has a broad base of support, his opponents are capitalizing on widespread discontent over his handling of the war, which humiliated Georgia and cost it swaths of territory as separatists and their Russian allies took full control over two breakaway regions.

For the opposition to mobilize the support necessary to oust Saakashvili, “they need blood,” said political analyst Alexander Rondeli. “They need someone beaten, even killed.”

Opposition leaders have called for the demonstrations to remain peaceful, and the activists who lead the daily marches wear red jackets with the word “peacefully” printed on both sides.

But their calculation, Rondeli said, is that if they put enough pressure on Saakashvili, “he will lose control and the police will move in.”

That is what happened in November, 2007, when Saakashvili sent in riot police with tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters and shut down a pro-opposition television station, drawing international condemnation and galvanizing opponents at home.

This time, Georgian police have largely kept out of sight. In anticipation of the protests, the government brought in crowd-control experts to train police.

Saakashvili also has taken precautions to prevent a repeat of the 2003 Rose Revolution, in which he and his supporters stormed parliament and forced the resignation of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze. He has deployed riot police to defend parliament, the main demonstration site, but they have remained inside the building.

During the brief August war, the country rallied around Saakashvili. But he is now accused by many Georgians of leading the nation into disaster and behaving like a coward when visiting the war zone. Protesters have put up posters made from a well-known photograph of Saakashvili cowering under his bodyguards in anticipation of a Russian air attack. The carrots and cabbages tossed at his residence are meant to cast Saakashvili as a cowardly rabbit.

The war strained relations between Russia and the West, which sided with Georgia. Like the president, the opposition leaders want closer ties with the United States and Europe. But they also consider it necessary to repair relations with Moscow, which they say will be difficult because of the antagonism between Saakashvili and Russia’s leaders.

Saakashvili has accused wealthy Russians of financing the opposition.

“The events of the last days have proved that Georgia is a stable country,” he said Tuesday. “And despite all the efforts and the funds invested (from the Russian side) it’s difficult to drag the country into instability.”

Saakashvili also has come under pressure as the global economic crisis worsened already-high unemployment, which now runs at about 16 percent.

Georgia’s economy has grown steadily since Saakashvili took over five years ago, with 12.4 percent growth in 2007. Growth fell sharply last year to 2.1 percent, but Saakashvili insists that the economy will expand by at least 3 percent this year, despite the global downturn.

Also feeding the protests is disgust over Saakashvili’s lavish lifestyle, particularly among opposition leaders who until recently were his allies. These include former parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze and Irakly Alasania, who resigned as ambassador to the U.N. in December.

Protesters regularly complain about the money Saakashvili has spent to build the president’s sumptuous residential complex and buy a presidential plane, which they say he used to fly in a personal masseuse.

“He built a castle and bought his own plane … at a time when a war was lost, land was lost and people are hungry,” said Merab Nebieridze, a 62-year-old doctor.

But the opposition appears to have misjudged the country’s mood. The first demonstration on April 9, a national holiday, drew an estimated 60,000 people, far short of the opposition’s expectation, and the numbers have declined steadily since.

Many Georgians say they are tired of the political squabbling, and want the conflict between Saakashvili and his critics to be settled through negotiations. Polls show the president remains by far the most popular politician, while the opposition has been unable to unite behind a single leader.

Saakashvili, whose second term runs through 2013, has proposed talks. He also has made a number of proposals in response to long-standing opposition demands, including the direct election of mayors and a readiness to consider constitutional changes to reduce the powers of the president.

For the opposition, this should be seen as a success, said Merab Pachulia, president of Georgian Opinion Research Business International.

So far, opposition leaders have largely rebuffed calls for compromise. If they agree to sit down for talks, they may no longer be able to mobilize the crowds that give them their strength. The most active protesters have jeered any suggestion of sitting down with Saakashvili.

“As for the demands for his resignation, the situation has hit a dead end,” said Pachulia. “Negotiations are unavoidable.”

“The way out is negotiations, or something disastrous,” said Rondeli, the political analyst. “The opposition can only rely on a miracle, but miracles sometimes happen.”

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