With Georgia's presidential race less than two months away, an opposition coalition has announced a unified candidate and plans to radically restructure the government.
The coalition, which has overseen a recent run of national demonstrations, nominated non-party parliamentarian Levan Gachechiladze as its candidate for the January 5 presidential election. Gachechiladze would likely be one of several opposition hopefuls running against incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili. Former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, head of the Georgia's Way Party, has been tapped for the post of prime minister. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
To international audiences, French-born Zourabichvili is by far the better known. The 43-year-old Gachechiladze, by profession a businessman, was a leader of the opposition protests and also a participant in the hunger strikes outside parliament that ended with the November 7 police clean-up operation. He is the brother of Georgian pop star Utsnobi (The Stranger).
How long Gachechiladze, if elected, would remain in power, however, is debatable. The two describe themselves as a team that intends to oversee Georgia's transition from a presidential form of government to a parliamentary republic. Gachechiladze told reporters at a November 12 press conference that as soon as the necessary reforms are in place for a "parliamentary system," he would resign as president.
Zourabichvili echoed that statement, describing the duo as a "temporary team" working together to win the elections, and then stay in power "during a transitional period" until parliamentary elections can be held. There is no decision as yet, she added, whether the ten-party opposition coalition will stay united for the vote. One party from the original alliance, the Labor Party, has already announced intentions to name its own candidate.
"Our chances of winning are good because we have the whole country behind us," Zourabichvili asserted, adding that Gachechiladze has a "very high rating" with the Georgian public.
The Republican Party, whose leaders were at the center of the opposition's five-day run of demonstrations against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, hailed the choice. "We are with him, he is with us and we are with the people," Davit Usupashvili, a leader of the Republican Party said. "This is not the replacement of Saakashvili."
Meanwhile, talks between the government and the opposition are threatening to stall. Representatives of five of the 10 opposition coalition parties have met with Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Mikheil Machavariani, National Movement Party MP Giga Bokeria and parliamentary majority leader Maia Nadiradze, also an MP for the ruling National Movement Party. In a November 12 interview with EurasiaNet, Conservative Party leader Kakha Kukhava, a participant in the talks, said the negotiations are going "poorly," adding that the government "refuses" to compromise. The opposition has stated that lifting the state of emergency and allowing news media to freely function including the recently closed Imedi television station are priorities in the talks. A meeting at 7pm on November 12 would be the last, Kukhava said, "if no compromise is reached."
Public attention is now focusing on the upcoming presidential race. At least five potential candidates, including New Rights Party leader Davit Gamkrelidze and Government of the Future Party founder Gia Maisashvili, have so far expressed interest in the race. Leading the nominations are two opposition leaders currently wanted for questioning by the Georgian government: media-tycoon-turned-opposition-financier Badri Patarkatsishvili and Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the Labor Party.
On November 11, one day after the General Prosecutor's office announced Patarkatsishvili is wanted for "interrogation as a suspect" for allegedly trying to overthrow the government, the multi-millionaire announced he would run for president on January 5.
According to a Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson, Shota Utiashvili, officials want to question the tycoon about a November 8 statement that he would "do everything possible
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Caucasus News Editor Elizabeth Owen in Tbilisi contributed reporting to this story.