Georgian Leader Again Rebuffs Calls to Resign

Riot police guard the presidential offices as demonstrators rally in Tbilisi.
Riot police guard the presidential offices as demonstrators rally in Tbilisi. (By Sergei Grits -- Associated Press)
By Sarah Marcus
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 11, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia, April 10 -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Friday his government faced no threat from protests that gripped the capital for a second day, and he dismissed opposition leaders as unpopular and ineffective as they threatened an escalating campaign of civil disobedience until he gives up power.

In a late-night interview after thousands of protesters blocked traffic on key roads and massed outside the presidential administration's offices, the U.S.-educated lawyer again rejected demands to step down and predicted that the demonstrations denouncing him as a dictator who mishandled last year's war with Russia would soon peter out.

But even as he derided the protesters, Saakashvili also offered to enter into "profound and substantial" talks with the opposition on political reforms, including changes to the electoral code, measures to strengthen Parliament and the introduction of direct elections for Tbilisi's mayor next year.

"We said we are willing to sit down and talk to them. We want them to become stakeholders," he said.

Saakashvili indicated, however, that he did not expect opposition leaders to take up his offer. If some stepped forward, he said, they would come under attack by the others.

"The problem is when you get into such a mess, it's always the radical one who prevails," he said. "It's a tragic situation because Georgia needs to get a bigger, more mature opposition.

"It's a little bit scary to see some of these people," he added. "They basically are not poised for long-term cooperation or programs or some kind of vision."

Opposition leaders reacted warily to Saakashvili's offer of dialogue, with some saying there was nothing to discuss except his resignation and others agreeing to hold talks only under certain conditions.

Irakli Alasania, leader of the opposition Alliance for Georgia and a former ambassador to the United Nations, said he was willing to meet with Saakashvili only in the presence of independent figures "who enjoy public trust."

Salome Zourabichvili, another opposition leader and a former foreign minister, said she would not back down from demands that Saakashvili give up power. "The only issue for this meeting will be his resignation," she said.

Others demanded a public debate that would be broadcast to the nation. "Not a single person will dare go to that meeting if it is not aired live on television," said Levan Gachechiladze, a former presidential candidate.

Saakashvili rejected the idea, saying, "It would be a circus and not an opportunity for serious negotiations."

The number of protesters on the streets appeared to drop sharply, from more than 50,000 on Thursday to about 20,000 on Friday. But organizers called for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience to ratchet up the pressure on Saakashvili, who came to power in 2004 after a similar wave of pro-democracy protests known as the Rose Revolution.

Saakashvili dismissed the threat, saying the opposition lacked the popular support to pull it off, and he insisted he would serve out his full term, which ends in 2013. "Why would somebody resign every time some party wants him to?" he asked. "The point here is that we have to give everybody the right to protest, but we also have the duty to protect institutions."

Opposition leaders vowed to block traffic in Tbilisi every day from 3 to 9 p.m. until Saakashvili resigns.

On Friday night, protesters briefly occupied Rustaveli Avenue, the capital's main boulevard, as well as a road leading to the state television broadcaster, where they faced off against a row of police inside the building.

Protesters also assembled outside the president's offices, where some threw cabbage and carrots. The opposition has called Saakashvili a rabbit, accusing him of cowardly behavior during the war, which ended with large pieces of Georgian territory under Russian control.

Eka Tkeshelashvili, secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, said the government would continue to exercise restraint. "It doesn't matter how many or how few demonstrators there are," she said. "We are determined to listen to them and improve our performance so that their frustrations can be met."

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