Saakashvili makes sure move

MOSCOW. (Besik Pipia for RIA Novosti) - Protesters crowded in front of the Georgian parliament for six days, chanting: "Misha, tsadi!" (Step down, Mike!). President Saakashvili has astonishingly followed the advice, and is resigning in two weeks.

Opposition party leaders are jubilant. "Her Majesty the Nation has won," says Zviad Dzidziguri of the Conservatives. "The president made the right and brave step at a hard time," Republican David Usupashvili joins in. "It's good the president has set an early election. We also welcome his decision to conduct a referendum about the date of parliamentary elections. That's good too. I am ready to face the challenge and run," says David Gamkrelidze, the New Rights' leader.

Mikhail Saakashvili and his friends are also rejoicing. The opposition's revolutionary zeal is cooling down and the people got the right to elect a new head of state. The voters are also grateful for a referendum, in which they will choose whether to go to the parliamentary polls next spring or fall. Georgian constitution allows a president to run for a second term. To all appearances, Saakashvili does not doubt his victory in the elections.

He has suggested a presidential election on January 5. The procedure demands constitutional amendments. After parliament approves them, the president must resign no later than 45 days before the election. Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze will automatically take over his office until the next president's inauguration.

At present, Saakashvili has the best chances in the presidential race. The opposition has no big charismatic figure to rival him, and such a figure is unlikely to appear in the two months before the election.

Experts regard Irakly Okruashvili as his biggest rival. However, they overlook the age qualification-the recalcitrant former defense minister is 34 years old. According to the Constitution, to be eligible a candidate has to be born in Georgia, resident there for no less than 15 years and living in Georgia on the day of the election, and be no younger than 35.

This constitutional premise bars the road to the top to other popular politicians-John Shalikashvili, retired chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was born in Warsaw, and Salome Zurabishvili, once Georgia's foreign minister, born in Paris.

Another hopeful, Badri Patarkatsishvili, the biggest stockholder of the independent Imedi television channel, is funding the opposition. He has sworn to spend his fortune down to the last lari (Georgian monetary unit) "to overthrow Saakashvili's fascist regime". But if he returns to Georgia now, he may be extradited to Russia, where he is on the wanted list. He might be indicted in Georgia, too. Pro-Saakashvili parliamentarian Givi Targamadze has accused him of plotting a coup during the recent dramatic public protests.

Other prominent opposition activists are unlikely to receive broad public support -Shalva Natelashvili, Labor Party leader; Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, son of former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia; Georgy Khaindrava, former State Minister for Conflict Resolution; and Koba Davitashvili, Saakashvili's comrade in the Rose Revolution, and now his sworn enemy. He is in intensive care these days with a head injury received as riot police was dispersing the Tbilisi rally.

Shalva Natelashvili is an espionage suspect. Criminal proceedings have been instigated against him, but no details have been made public yet. The pro-Saakashvili Rustavi-2 television aired a recording of his telephone conversation from 2005 with a Russian diplomat. It is no evidence. "Empty talk," experts say.

Saakashvili's reputation is tarred with recent violence in Tbilisi as peaceful protesters were dispersed with teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets, and several hundred were injured. But then, Georgians easily forgive their wrongs. They will soon recollect the violence as harmless fisticuffs that crowned merry bickering, and opposition will drink "to Koba Davitashvili's smashed skull, which overthrew Saakashvili".

So the outgoing president has won a respite to regain public confidence.

This will be hard to do. Indicatively, Tbilisi protesters had no political mottos, only social-they stood up against skyrocketing prices with no wage indexation, against rampant property confiscations under the pretext that privatization papers had been incorrectly filed under previous presidents, and so on. Georgia has many problems-the judiciary is paralyzed, there are mass arrests, and prison inmates live in unbearable conditions, which the Council of Europe recently highlighted. Unemployment has reached a critical point to start unprecedented emigration.

We will soon see what Saakashvili's spin doctors can do to swing the electorate's mood. The regime will surely shower the population with New Year food parcels. Vano Merabishvili, Gigi Bokeria, Maya Nadiradze and the president's other associates hated by the public will probably appear on television less frequently than recently.

A large amnesty is expected to release thousands of men and women convicted for non-violent crimes. Spin doctors say each of them will bring to the polls up to fifty grateful friends and relatives.

Political analysts do not rule out a brilliant move in case of need-George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy visiting Georgia on New Year's Eve as Santa Clauses.

Besik Pipia is chief of the RIA Novosti Bureau in Georgia.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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