Four leading figures from a 10-party opposition coalition former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabishvili, Conservative Party member Kakha Kukhava, and Republican Party leaders Tina Khidasheli and David Berdzenishvili were granted a meeting with Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze in the evening of November 2.
The coalition is also agitating for the reform of the election system to include opposition members in electoral committees, the introduction of first-past-the-post parliamentary representation and the release of political prisoners. Coalition leaders wore white neck scarves at the rally reportedly as a symbol of their demand that so-called prisoners of conscience be freed from jail.
Burjanadze rejected the idea of holding parliamentary elections in April 2008, as desired by the opposition. Speaking at a news briefing, the parliamentary speaker said that sticking with Georgia's current election date sometime in early autumn 2008 for both the presidential and parliamentary vote is "very important for the country's interests and it's a very correct decision for the country." She did not elaborate.
Burjanadze, however, indicated that conversations are still continuing about the opposition's remaining three demands, and emphasized that the government is "always ready for dialogue."
Although the opposition had billed the protest in front of parliament as a warning for President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, they took pains throughout the day to tone down their rhetoric, calling on supporters to be aware of "provocations."
The mood at the demonstration was largely peaceful, with few police to be seen. Clashes with law enforcement officers were limited to a small scuffle when protestors attempted to remove a huge poster depicting opposition leaders as marionettes controlled by pro-opposition tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The businessman recently announced plans to finance the opposition movement and to surrender his shares in media company Imedi. Two protestors were arrested while trying to pull the poster down, although Rustavi 2 television, a pro-government media outlet, later reported that they were released.
In a surprise move, Patarkatsishvili himself briefly addressed the rally, the first such appearance for the London-based tycoon. As the crowd chanted "Badri" and "Sakartvelo (Georgia)," Patarkatsishvili shied away from definitive statements, but urged rally participants to do "the maximum so that the government will enter into a dialogue" that would allow a "people's government" to be formed via elections.
The absence of one other public figure acted as a further fuel for some protestors and opposition leaders. According to media reports, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, whose scandalous charges against President Saakashvili ignited the current opposition campaign, left Georgia on November 1 for "medical treatment" in France. Okruashvili was arrested in late September on various criminal charges, and later released on bail after he retracted his accusations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
His supporters, however, maintain that the ex-minister was planning to attend the November 2 demonstration and that security personnel forced him to leave the country under threat of a fresh arrest. Okruashvili lawyer Eka Beselia told the pro-opposition newspaper Rezonansi (Resonance) on November 1 that the former minister was planning "to answer all questions" about the methods allegedly used to prompt his retraction. His wife and daughter remain in Tbilisi, she said.
Opposition leaders have traveled the country over the past month in an effort to drum up support for the November 2 demonstration. [See related EurasiaNet story]. In a scene reminiscent of the lead-up to Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, a convoy of honking cars 20-kilometers-long, according to one opposition leader arrived in Tbilisi late on November 1, with protestors taking up position outside of parliament.
Georgian media reported on November 1 that some attempt had been made to prevent other protestors from reaching the capital by disrupting mini-bus traffic. Members of the governing National Movement Party denied these allegations.
Police officers at the scene November 1 estimated the demonstration size at anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 participants. Opposition leaders had predicted a turnout of at least 100,000.
Turnout size, though, is unlikely to sway the government, at least publicly, argues Dr. Tina Gogueliani, a political analyst with the International Center for Conflict and Negotiations and a research fellow with the Washington DC-based World Security Institute. The government is trying to play down the opposition's potential strength by "closing its eyes" to the protest, she said.
Nonetheless, the opposition is now more organized, and likely has the staying power to continue the protests several days, Gogueliani predicted. "[The opposition leadership are] all people who participated in the Rose Revolution. They know how things work," Gogueliani said. "It is highly probable that today nothing will really happen [the protest] needs to continue one or two days."
Salome Zourabishvili, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia and several senior members of the Republican Party recently traveled to Brussels and Washington, DC, in an effort to build up international support for the opposition's cause. However, speaking at a Tbilisi summit on cooperation with Europe on November 1, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried denied that the United States is prepared to mediate between the government and opposition, describing the parties as "weak."
"The United States does not see its role as a mediator," he said while speaking to the press November 1. "I think that it is for the Georgian government, the Georgian political parties, including the Georgian opposition, to work out the rules of the game in a democratic fashion."
Analyst Gogueliani agrees: "I think that, first of all, Georgia itself and the Georgian population should decide what it wants [and] what it likes and why they don't like the current regime."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.