Friday, November 09, 2007

Georgia's protests

People power

Nov 8th 2007 | TBILISI
From The Economist print edition

The president tries to face down protests from the opposition

IT WAS exactly four years ago that Mikheil Saakashvili, then a youthful firebrand leader of the opposition to President Eduard Shevardnadze, brought his supporters out into the streets of Tbilisi. The protesters were complaining that Mr Shevardnadze had staged and won a rigged parliamentary election. The demonstrations were peaceful but, because they went on day after day, also intimidating. Within days, Georgia's “rose revolution” had driven Mr Shevardnadze out of power and installed Mr Saakashvili in his place.

Four years on it is Mr Saakashvili who has been confronted by the biggest protests since the rose revolution. The most recent ones, in central Tbilisi and in front of the parliament building, have attracted crowds at least 50,000 strong. The protesters object to Mr Saakashvili's forceful, hands-on style, complain that the benefits of the boom (annual GDP growth is close to 10%) have been too narrowly shared, and demand fresh elections.

Yet unlike Mr Shevardnadze four years ago, Mr Saakashvili seems determined to hang on. He claims the demonstrations are part of a Kremlin-backed putsch against him. “High-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this,” he said, adding that several Russian diplomats would be expelled. Georgia's ambassador to Moscow has been recalled.

Certainly Russia has systematically provoked Georgia, with trade and energy sanctions, harassment of Georgian migrants in Russia, and—most recently—mysterious air raids. But Mr Saakashvili's response will do little to help his country's reputation as a shop window for the West in the former Soviet Union.

On November 7th police forcefully dispersed the protesters, using tear-gas and water cannon. Scores of people were reported injured. Among those beaten was Georgia's human-rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari. The government then declared a 15-day state of emergency. Riot police stormed the main opposition television station, Imedi, and took it off the air.

Countries that normally support Georgia against Russian bullying are aghast. Many have been worried privately for some time about cronyism in Mr Saakashvili's inner circle. Last month the secretary-general of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, underlined the need for greater political transparency and a stricter rule of law if Georgia wants to progress towards membership. Outsiders worry that state influence on the media is too strong. Many think that the government mishandled a spectacular bust-up last month with the firebrand former defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili, now in exile.

Yet the opposition's stance can sound hysterical and sometimes outlandish (hanging the president in effigy and demanding the restoration of the monarchy after a 200-year interregnum). Given the shambles that Mr Saakashvili took over in 2003, the obstacles he has faced and the progress he has made, criticisms of him may seem harsh. The opposition's motives are open to question too. Badri Patarkatsishvili, a tycoon who fled from Russia, openly bankrolls some of the protesters, no doubt for admirable reasons. That raises questions about the influence of big money in poor countries' politics. An adviser to Mr Saakashvili says those backing the opposition want Georgia to be a weak state that big business can manipulate.

Western countries will be urging Mr Saakashvili to return political life to normal as soon as possible. If he cannot produce proof of Russian involvement, many will feel that he has cried wolf, using his country's geopolitical significance for narrow domestic advantage. Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, a Tbilisi-based analyst, comments that Mr Saakashvili and his government have survived, but adds that “in the longer term I cannot say his perspectives look very good.” At the very least this week's events have shown how disillusioned many Georgians now are with Mr Saakashvili's commitment to the rose revolution's ideals: freedom, legality and international respectability.


Giustino said...

Water cannon and tear gas are -- unfortunately -- the hallmark of any street protest these days. In Copenhagen they used them after anarchists rioted when the government tore down their hangout in March.

But when Saakashvili shut down the TV stations, it really raised questions about his democratic credentials. I don't know how you redeem yourself after something like that.

Dan O'H said...

Well, it looks like Saakashvili has found a good way out of this. I can't imagine him losing a presidential election: he still has the patronage, and with only 2 months to prepare I can't imagine the opposition getting fully behind Okruashvili or anybody else.

As you imply, the biggest outcome of this is that the US and Europe are going to have much more trouble unreservedly supporting Georgia.

Do you have any sense of the situation beyond Tbilisi? All the reports I've read have talked about the protests in the capital, but none have commented much on opinion in the rest of the country.

Grigol said...

Dear Edward

I think last comment of Ketevan Tsikhelashvili are little overstated and out of context. First I want to inform you that she worked for Giorgi Khaindrava, rather unbalanced and inadequate opposition leader and that casts some shade on her impartiality.

And there is BIG difference between free media and propaganda. Very big difference. When a TV channel says special forces are about to storm a church while they are nowhere near.... When owner of a TV channel says "Nobody should doubt that all my efforts, my financial resources including the last tetri will be applied for freeing Georgia from this fascist regime.” The state must act in the interest of national security, even if it will be attacked for raiding a TV