Georgian president upbeat ahead of mass protests

Georgian president upbeat ahead of mass protests

VALENTINA POP, 09.04.2009, EUOBSERVER / TBILISI – Thursday's mass rally calling for Mikhail Saakashvili's resignation will not have an impact on the country's leadership, the Georgian president told this website, with EU diplomats and experts on site to observe the protests and the police response.

"Georgia has had many manifestations in the past and there is a big opposition mobilisation, but we don't expect more than the French expected from the manifestations against their government," Mr Saakashvili said on Wednesday.

Mikhail Saakashvili says calls for his resignation are unjustified (Photo: European Commission)

He spoke a day ahead of the mass rally, staged by the non-parliamentary opposition, calling for his resignation over the August war and alleged worsening of human rights.

"We hope that we won't be seeing violence like in London and Athens and that there is consensus that every protest should be peaceful. The main thing we expect is to show the world that Georgia is a democracy and not susceptible to any destabilisation," the president said.

From his presidential palace, still under construction and overlooking the hilly panorama of Tbilisi, Mr Saakashvili seemed confident that no coup was possible during the protests which were set to kick off early afternoon.

"A coup requires a crack in the military and police and a political crisis in the Parliament. There are no such credentials here right now. We see that some people in downtown Tbilisi mostly are unhappy with their status, but in the regions, they have almost zero support," he argued.

Last month, authorities arrested ten men linked to the opposition, after releasing secretly filmed videos of them apparently buying weapons. The opposition accused the government of a smear campaign and intimidation ahead of the rally.

"This country has seen several civil wars and foreign aggression. It has a bad history of violence. At this stage it is a safe country, but of course there are people prone to go that way if we allow to. So we should be vigilant. But that doesn't mean in any way that it would limit the political party," Mr Saakashvili said, adding that party members and international organisations have access to the arrested suspects.

"The Georgian party system is very little developed, you get a lot of people switching from one party to another, also people with criminal connections getting into parties in the hope for some cover up. That doesn't mean we should blame the parties, but the underdevelopment of parties. It is a temporary problem for Georgia, once parties develop, it won't be an issue anymore," he said.

Mr Saakashvili rejected the idea that people were angry at him over the military incursion into South Ossetia in August, followed by a large-scale Russian invasion.

But he did concede that there was an "element of social unrest" due to the fact that 16 percent of the active population is unemployed and some 20 percent holds only temporary jobs.

EU diplomats on alert

European and US diplomats in Tbilisi held several meetings with the authorities and the opposition members, urging both sides to avoid violence. In November 2007, violent demonstrations against the president led to a declared state of emergency and a brutal clampdown by the police.

"I personally can reassure you that what we are trying to do tomorrow (9 April) ... is not to stage a revolution," Irakly Alasania, one of the opposition figures organising the event and a former UN ambassador, told reporters after meeting EU diplomats on Wednesday.

European diplomats, as well as crowd control experts have flown in from various capitals to observe the protests and the police response, in a bid to ease tensions.

Some 100 representatives of the Georgian ombudsman's office, equipped with video cameras, is also set to monitor the events. The ombudsman is seen as an independent institution as it has previously been critical of the Saakashvili administration.

In a survey of 1,500 Georgians conducted last month for the International Republican Institute, only 28 percent agreed with opposition leaders that Mr Saakashvili should resign. Fifty-one percent agreed with the statement that Georgia needed "unity and patience" in the face of serious challenges.