One day after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's proposal to hold early presidential elections, the standoff between government and opposition shows little sign of abating. With the proposed vote less than two months away, officials have accused two opposition leaders of espionage and plotting a coup. In addition, the government has opened an investigation of opposition financier Badri Patarkatsishvili for allegedly threatening to overthrow the government.
Saakashvili announced the early presidential vote, tentatively scheduled for January 5, as a way to ease tension following the imposition of a state of emergency on November 7. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But charges brought against Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili and Freedom Party leader Konstantin Gamsakhurdia in connection with the opposition protests suggest that government concerns about "foreign forces" a euphemism for Russia remain unchanged. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Both men were charged on November 9 with espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili confirmed. Gamsakhurdia's brother, Tsotne, has also been charged on both counts. It is unlikely that criminal proceedings against two leading opposition leaders can help foster an atmosphere of compromise between Saakashvili's administration and a 10-party opposition coalition.
Over the past day, Georgian Public Television, the only news broadcaster currently allowed to operate, has routinely featured alleged phone conversations and videotaped meetings involving all three of the accused and supposed representatives of Russian intelligence in Tbilisi.
None of the men has yet been brought in for questioning, Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili said, adding that Natelashvili and Konstantin Gamsakhurdia have "probably" fled the country. Both opposition leaders had earlier been reported missing by party representatives. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Representatives from both leaders' parties, however, assured EurasiaNet on November 9 that the two remain in Georgia. Konstantin Gamsakhurdia is at home in Tbilisi, said Freedom Party spokesperson Natia Toidze; a Labor Party representative would not divulge Natelashvili's exact whereabouts.
Officials' lingering sense of unease was also reflected in parliament's November 9 approval of Saakashvili's declaration of a state of emergency, an order that restricts news broadcasts and bans public demonstrations until November 22.
Commenting on the vote, Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze noted that while Georgia's political situation had improved since security forces moved to break up an opposition protest in central Tbilisi on November 7, a "threat to stability still exists."
Saakashvili's November 8 proposal for early presidential elections has been hailed by government supporters as a chance to affirm the administration's stand against such threats. Under the Georgian constitution, Saakashvili must resign at least 45 days before the election date, which must be approved by parliament. If the elections are indeed held on January 5, as proposed, the president will step down on November 22, leaving him with less than three weeks in office.
But Davit Usupashvili, a leader of the opposition Republican Party, told EurasiaNet that lifting the emergency measures is vital before the election takes place. The opposition, he added, needs to know what the government's plans are before it can move forward with its own presidential election campaign.
Saakashvili supporters are quick to hold up the early election proposal as evidence of the president's willingness to compromise. Usupashvili, meanwhile, argued that parliament's approval of the state of emergency had sent "mixed messages," as it came after indications from the president that the order would be annulled. "It seems like the government is confused," Usupashvili said.
A representative of one non-governmental organization with close ties to the president, however, rejected that notion, terming Saakashvili's decision for an early presidential vote as "logical" and a "compromise."
"The election will show whether there is support not just for the president
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.