Friday, November 7, 2008

Georgia's opposition hope to catch West's attention

TBILISI, Georgia – The United States’ closest ally in the Caucasus will face its most severe test since losing a war with Russia when thousands of protesters gather today outside Georgia’s parliament to call for democratic and media reforms.

Georgia’s political opposition planned the protest for the first anniversary of the government’s violent suppression of rally with similar demands. Last year’s rally was estimated to have drawn over 100,000 people.

This year’s protest comes as the country is still reeling from its defeat by Russian and separatist forces from its two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia’s economy has been battered by war and the global financial crisis.

Battered by the war and global financial crisis, Georgia’s economy is dependent on $4.5 billion of aid money promised by international donors.

Georgia’s opposition hopes today’s protest catches the West’s attention.

Georgia needs “huge support from the West to push on Saakashvili to hold normal, fair elections,” said David Gamkrelidze, leader of the New Rights Party, which is participating in the protest.

“It’s impossible to reach lasting stability here without real democracy,” he said.

Georgia’s stability is critical to US interests in the region, said Zeyno Baran, a regional analyst with the Hudson Institute.

The US is competing with Russia for access to Caspian Sea and Central Asia’s energy resources, Baran said. The only way for the US to reach those resources is through Georgia.

Outside Parliament, members of the United Opposition tested a sound system and stage for Friday's protest. Louie Armstrong played over the speakers.

"Good or bad, the people will come here tomorrow," said a police officer watching the small crowd from behind a barricade on Parliament's steps. He would not give his name.

"Tomorrow is just the start of the protests, and we're hoping to achieve new presidential elections in the spring," said Kakha Kukava, leader of the Conservative Party.

Like other opposition leaders, Kukava hopes the new US administration will push the Georgian government to institute more democratic reforms.

"The [US] Republican administration failed to promote real democracy in the post-Soviet regions," he said.

Kukava estimated at least 30,000 people would attend the rally.

Makacaria Lia plans to attend. The 45-year-old Abkhaz woman went last year, but doesn't expect the government to crackdown this year.

"I think [the protest] will change things economically. We need property rights," Lia said.

More than democratic reforms, she wants the West to pressure Russia into respecting Georgia's territorial integrity.

Territorial integrity has consistently far outranked democratic reforms in Gallup's twice annual polls.

Nonetheless, democratic reforms is one of the main issues of the opposition. But many say Georgia's territorial integrity can never be guaranteed by current Pres. Mikheil Saakashvili. Some opposition leaders, including Gamkrelidze and Kukava, have called for his resignation.

The West will not support calls for Saakashvili’s removal, said Dato Usupashvili, leader of Georgia's Republican Party, which is not participating in Friday's protest.

Since Georgia cannot reform without Western support, the Republican Party is pushing for parliamentary rather than presidential elections, he said.

The West turned a blind eye to problems with Georgia’s last parliamentary and presidential elections, but now “they see the danger that an unpredictable Georgia can pose,” Usupashvili said.

If the West makes the $4.5 billion pledged in international aid conditional on democratic reform, and the opposition reaches a consensus on a reform strategy, Georgia’s chances for becoming a democracy are high, he said.

Usupashvili and other opposition leaders have already met separately with representatives from donor countries to discuss making aid money conditional on democratic reforms.

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