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Opposition hunger strike begins

By Eter Tsotniashvili
Friday, February 22
The opposition coalition will begin a hunger strike today, pitching tents on the steps of parliament as they push the government to enact changes they say are needed for fair parliamentary elections.

The nine-party opposition coalition put out a call to their supporters in the towns of Tbilisi, Rustavi, Batumi, Zugdidi and Kutaisi to join them in the hunger strike.

Among the hunger strikers are leaders of many of the coalition parties, including Salome Zourabichvili, the French-born ex-foreign minister.

Opposition representative Koba Davitashvili says the protest will continue until three key demands, the resignation of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) chief and the chair of the Central Election Commission and the release of “political prisoners,” are met. Once that happens, he says, the opposition will pack up their tents and go back to the negotiating table.

The Labor and New Rights parties, which are not in the opposition coalition, declared solidarity with coalition leaders but said they will not join the hunger strikers.

Labor Party representative Soso Shatberashvili told the Messenger his party supports the protest, but prefers to reserve hunger strikes for more dramatic demands.

“We would start hunger strikes if the main demand is the resignation of Saakashvili and his government, but we will not go on hunger strike because of [GPB head Tamar] Kintsurashvili,” Shatberashvili said.

New Rights leader Davit Gamkrelidze also said his party would join the protest, but sit out the hunger strike.

He is ready to resume dialogue with the government, Gamkrelidze told reporters, after the opposition’s three demands are met. At the same time, he acknowledged speaking over the phone with Speaker of Parliament Nino Burjanadze on February 19.

“I avoid having any relationship with Saakashvili, because his legitimacy is under the question, but Burjanadze is legitimate until the [parliamentary] elections,” Gamkrelidze said.

Burjanadze, commenting to journalists before leaving for Vienna yesterday, said the government is already in the process of meeting the opposition’s demands.

“The people who were arrested following the November events will be released step-by-step,” she said, adding that next week Parliament is slated to confirm the new GPB board of directors.

“After this Tamar Kintsurashvili will resign—however, the opposition still demands her resignation. I hope we will be able to talk with the opposition about a new candidate for her position,” Burjanadze said.

Tbilisi City Hall issued a permit for the opposition to protest up until February 25, but an opposition coalition spokesperson said they have applied for a ten-day extension. City Hall has not commented on whether they will give more time.