Georgia’s Opposition Shows Signs of Splitting

Thousands of opposition supporters gather at St. Trinity Cathedral to confer with Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, May 26, 2009.

Thousands of opposition supporters gather at St. Trinity Cathedral to confer with Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, May 26, 2009.

TBILISI (AP)–After weeks of presenting a united front in their effort to force President Mikhail Saakashvili to resign, Georgia’s opposition leadership appeared split Wednesday after moderates denounced calls by radicals to shut down rail service to the capital and blockade the airport.

The opposition has staged almost two months of peaceful daily protests but made little apparent progress in prying Saakashvili from power, prompting several hundred frustrated activists to mount a four-hour blockade at the city’s central train station early Wednesday.

Some of the more militant opposition figures have also threatened to block the capital’s airport, but the threat wasn’t repeated at Wednesday’s rally outside the parliament building. For Thursday the opposition announced a march to the office of the city mayor, whom they accuse of doing the president’s bidding.

For many of Saakashvili’s critics, the hours long shutdown of all east-west rail traffic in Georgia was a step too far.

Irakli Alasania, moderate leader of the Alliance For Georgia, said the daily rallies had “played their positive role” and new measures were needed. But he was adamantly opposed to bringing the country to a standstill.

“We are not going to take part in such actions as blocking highways and railroads,” he said.

The split among opposition leaders spilled into the open Tuesday night, when Alasania and others argued on a stage in front of the parliament building, as thousands of protesters looked on.

Alasania urged other protest leaders not to send demonstrators to block the railroad. But he was shouted down by a rival, popular politician Nino Burdzhanadze, and others who took a harder line.

Opposition leaders had hoped Tuesday would be a decisive day of protests. Tens of thousands jammed Tbilisi’s main soccer stadium for a rally and later, the huge crowd marched through the city past the Orthodox cathedral to parliament.

Tbilisi Mayor Giorgi Ugulava, told the Associated Press Wednesday that the opposition leaders had “become hostages” of the radicals. “The leaders cannot manage these people anymore,” said Ugulava, a Saakashvili ally.

City police will continue to give protesters wide latitude until they cross certain “red lines,” Ugulava said. He was reluctant to say under what circumstances police might intervene, but conceded that a blockade of the airport “would give us space to act more actively.”

Georgia’s universally respected Patriarch Ilia II called for calm and dialogue in the midst of Tuesday’s protests, defusing much of the tension. Some analysts say Ilia’s statement acted as a catalyst for the split.

“The announcement by the patriarch was a cold shower for the opposition,” said Soso Tsintsadze, a political analyst and rector of the Independent Diplomatic Academy.

Saakashvili, who came to power on the back of similarly peaceful protests in 2003, has said he will remain in office until his term ends in 2013.

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