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Georgia: Misha's Challenge

Why did Georgia’s young president respond so brutally to opposition protests, and what are his prospects now?
Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare where an opposition rally was broken up last week with police truncheons and tear-gas, now smells of dust and paint.

Restoration work on building facades, interrupted for a week, has resumed. The Georgian authorities are doing everything they can to reassure their citizens that normal life has resumed after the violence of November 7. The state of emergency imposed that day is due to be lifted on the evening of November 16.

However, political life is definitely not back to normal. The domestic political landscape and perceptions of the country abroad have changed dramatically since last week’s street battles in which riot police beat opposition demonstrators.

Mikheil Saakashvili, Europe’s youngest president, had won international plaudits ever since he was at the forefront of the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003, in which peaceful protests toppled the administration of the then president Eduard Shevardnadze.

Now that Saakashvili has become a target for “people power” himself, he has tarnished his democratic image by sanctioning a forceful response, imposing a state of emergency and pulling the opposition television stations Imedi and Caucasia from the airwaves.

Georgian experts say his decision to call a presidential election for January 5 – a year earlier than scheduled – and to lift the state of emergency are most likely the result of unprecedented international pressure, in particular the personal intervention of top United States official Matt Bryza.

“Misha” – as most Georgians refer to him – is an American-educated lawyer who has been a dynamic figure on the political scene ever since he resigned as minister of justice in 2001 and moved over to the opposition.

Many people recall Saakashvili giving his seat up to them on the Tbilisi metro, at a time when other ministers travelled in expensive cars with a large entourage of bodyguards.

In past election campaigns, it seemed as though the charismatic Saakashvili had personally shaken the hand of perhaps one in three of Georgia’s population of five million.

However, his popularity has fallen sharply in the four years since the Rose Revolution.

In part, this is because of the painful changes the country has undergone under the leadership of Saakashvili and his young team.

The World Bank has lavished the Georgian government with praise for achieving double-digit economic growth, overcoming the country’s energy shortages, tackling corruption and securing a big increase in foreign investment.

But radical economic reforms have been an unpleasant cold shower for most citizens. One third of the population still lives on or below the poverty line, unemployment is still high and price rises have not been matched by corresponding raises in pensions and benefits.

However, experts say the latest street protests were triggered as much by style as by substance – specifically by the once-populist president’s failure to communicate with his people, hold a dialogue with his opponents, or tolerate criticism.

Saakashvili has spent much of his presidency on foreign trips which have boosted Georgia’s international image, but left him less sensitive to how his leadership is perceived at home.

“One can say with confidence that it was the cynicism of the authorities that brought people out on to the streets,” political analyst Paata Zakareishvili told IWPR. “The decisive factor was the arrogance, high-handedness and excesses of the authorities and their ‘I do what I want’ attitude.”

Archil Gegeshidze of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies noted that “in Saakashvili’s actions, both in this specific instance [the events of November 7] and in general, one senses the strong influence of his inner circle. And this influence has led him to fail to respond properly.”

There are also serious concerns about the state of the judicial system and the protection of human rights and private property.

One of the authors of Georgia’s current constitution, Professor Vakhtang Khmaladze, told IWPR, “The low level of independence of the courts in Georgia has had a negative impact on the state of human rights and also on the economy. People have the feeling that justice in this country is a selective process.”

Saakashvili has blamed Russia for provoking the political crisis.

Under his presidency, relations with Moscow have sunk to a new low, with Russia imposing an economic embargo on Georgia and halting the issuing of visas to its citizens.

Russia is universally unpopular amongst Georgians, 70 per cent of whom want their country to join NATO, according to opinion polls.

Yet Georgian analysts say the charge that the domestic crisis was triggered by Moscow cannot be taken seriously.

“External forces trying to exploit our internal tensions and weaknesses have, are and always will be there, but I personally do not believe that the mass demonstrations were initiated by external forces,” said Gegeshidze.

Nor, it seems, is this argument believed by western governments and organisations such as NATO, which have strongly criticised the Georgian government’s actions and called for the opposition TV stations to be restored to the airwaves.

“The international community has never been so critical of us,” said Archil Gegeshidze. “Every minute and every hour that Imedi remains off the air works against us.”

So far, Saakashvili has responded only partially to the calls to reverse his actions of the past week.

A Tbilisi city court suspended the broadcasting license of Imedi television on November 14 on the grounds that its coverage of the November 7 violence – prior to its suspension later that evening - amounted to incitement to overthrow the government.

Zakareishvili argues that “the image of Georgia has changed, but not for the worst – it has become closer to reality”.

“The world has seen the real face of Georgia and Saakashvili,” he said. “As a result our country can only win, because real actions will be demanded of us.”

The president has already begun reaching out to his citizens a week before the election campaign gets under way, holding meetings with businessmen, doctors and teachers – all covered extensively by the public television channel that is the only station authorised to broadcast news during the state of emergency.

At one meeting with doctors, Saakashvili expressed the kind of words of contrition which many had hoped to hear on November 7.

“My brothers and sisters, I felt on my own skin the blow of every truncheon just as you did, and I wept from the tear-gas,” he said. “But when the alternative is chaos and civil war, the state has no choice but to act; it is only doing its duty.”

Experts say Saakashvili still has a good chance of being re-elected on January 5.

“A lot depends on who the electorate sees as the alternative; on whether they can see a worthy competitor,” said Gegeshidze. “If such a figure emerges, they will support him. If not, Saakashvili will once again be president, only with less legitimacy than before.”

A great deal therefore rests on how the elections are conducted, how fair they are perceived to be, and what verdict the international community passes on them.

Sopho Bukia is IWPR’s Georgia editor in Tbilisi.

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