Rivals say they plan to remove Georgian president


GEORGIAN OPPOSITION politicians have wasted no time in trying to undermine president Mikheil Saakashvili, who remains broadly popular in Georgia but is still widely perceived in the country as having started the war with Russia.

Levan Gachechiladze, Mr Saakashvili's former campaign manager, who ran against him in January's presidential elections, said Georgia's political opposition would campaign for elections to be held "at the earliest opportunity", perhaps within two months.

"This government has no chance of establishing trust with Georgians," he said.

Kakha Kukava, secretary-general of the opposition Conservative party of Georgia, similarly criticised the president for the war.

"Saakashvili was personally responsible for the military operation, and for starting a war we could not win," he said, adding that his party would wait until the situation had cooled and then call for mass demonstrations aimed at removing the government.

It is hard to overstate the bitterness the opposition harbours towards Mr Saakashvili. He has steadily centralised his authority since he was brought to power by popular protests in the 2004 Rose Revolution and engineered a brutal crackdown on dissent last November.

Even though Mr Saakashvili has received a short-term boost of patriotic fervour as the country unites against neighbouring Russia, his opponents sense he is politically vulnerable on the issue of the war, which has devastated Georgia.

About 150,000 Georgians demonstrated earlier this week against the Russian invasion, and cheered Mr Saakashvili when he addressed them. Nonetheless, many Georgians see the president's decision to send troops into South Ossetia as the primary cause of the war.

"What he did by restoring constitutional order, in his words, was only to provoke Russia," said Mr Gachechiladze.

The opposition risks being perceived as playing into Russia's hands, as the Kremlin has made no secret of its desire to see Mr Saakashvili gone. And with virtually no representation in parliament and the media, the opposition has no constitutional way to force early elections.

German chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to Georgia on Sunday for talks with Mr Saakashvili aimed at forging a lasting peace between Tbilisi and Moscow, a German official said.

The trip will take place two days after Dr Merkel meets Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi on the Russian Black Sea coast to try to resolve the conflict over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia. - (Financial Times/Reuters)