Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Saakashvili Calls Opponents' Bluff

State of emergency to be lifted as Saakashvili seeks early date for election.
Following intense international criticism of the Georgian leadership, Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze announced on November 14 that the state of emergency imposed last week would be lifted in two days’ time.

Burjanadze insisted there was no crisis in the country, despite the violent break-up of opposition demonstrations, the closure of two televisions stations and the imposition of a state of emergency on November 7, all of which caused international disquiet. US deputy assistant secretary of state Matt Bryza had come to Georgia and called for the state of emergency - originally imposed for two weeks -- to be lifted.

“The country is continuing life in a normal, peaceful and democratic routine,” said Burjanadze. “Georgia is doing everything to preserve peace and stability, it should do everything to affirm democratic values.”

The country is now gearing up for pre-term presidential polls, after President Mikheil Saakashvili’s called a snap election, giving a dramatic new twist to the turbulent events in Georgia.

In a televised address on November 8, Saakashvili said he was curtailing his term in office by a year so that the presidential election takes place on January 5, 2008.

“As head of this country, I need your unequivocal mandate to cope with all the external threats and pressure being put on Georgia”, he said. The “external pressure”, he believes, is coming from Russia, which he has accused of backing the recent wave of opposition protests.

He now has to leave office by November 22 so as to leave a 45-day period before the election, and will hand over his duties to Burjanadze.

Burjanadze has been acting president once before, in the immediate aftermath of Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation as president in the Rose Revolution of November 2003.

The violence that rocked Tbilisi on November 7, when the police used baton charges and tear gas during clashes with opposition supporters, followed several days of peaceful demonstrations challenging Saakashvili’s rule.

On the evening that the rallies were halted, two opposition TV-channels - Imedi, whose owner businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili recently handed over management of his controlling share to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and Caucasia – were pulled off the air.

The nationwide state of emergency declared the same night prohibits any mass gatherings and allows only Georgian public television to broadcast news.

Print media have escaped the restrictions, and newspapers have been selling like hot cakes, leaving all the kiosks empty by midday. However, this should be seen in context - Georgian newspapers have a low circulation, while perhaps seven per cent of the population have access to the internet.

Imedi’s director-general Bidzina Baratashvili told journalists that “up to 90 per cent” of the station’s broadcast equipment was destroyed by the police who broke into its premises to halt its operation.

“They trampled over our archives and our animation movie tapes as well,” he said. “They broke into the canteen and took away food, putting mashed potato and cutlets into packets.”

Baratashvili promised that once it gets back on air, Imedi will continue telling “only the truth”.

While the date for the forthcoming election has yet to be officially finalised, campaigning has effectively started.

The names of at least six hopefuls were announced on October 12.

On November 12, the united opposition movement which organised the protests, named its candidate – Levan Gachechiladze, a 43-year-old independent member of parliament who was an active supporter of Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution.

Announcing their choice at a press briefing, opposition figures said they had deliberately chosen a man with no presidential ambitions. If he won, they said, the institution of president would be abolished altogether.

They said that if Gachechiladze won, the post of prime minister would go to Salome Zurabishvili, once foreign minister under Saakashvili and now head of the opposition Georgia’s Way party.

Because she holds dual French-Georgian citizenship, Zurabishvili is not eligible to stand for the presidency, and falls short of the 15-year period of residence that candidates are required to have under the constitution.

The rest of the field are Patarkatsishvili, the media magnate who is a close associate of exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and Shalva Natelashvili, David Gamkrelidze and Gia Maisashvili, who lead the Labour Party, the New Rights Party and the Party of the Future, respectively.

A referendum on a date for the next parliamentary election is to be held simultaneously with the presidential poll. One of the demands made by the opposition during the recent protests was that the general election should be brought forward from autumn 2008 to April.

Opposition politicians and many political analysts believe Saakashvili was nudged into going for an early election by the anger of western politicians who warned him not to turn away from the democratic path, rather than by the pressure created by the opposition protests.

US official Bryza, who arrived in Tbilisi on November 11, said, “Democracy in Georgia is the US government’s number one priority. It’s obvious that the recent events have done damage to the system.”

Bryza called "for an immediate lifting of the state of emergency and restoration of all media broadcasts”. This was necessary, he added, “to ensure that the elections announced by President Saakashvili are free and fair”.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the imposition of a state of emergency and the ensuing media shutdown were "not in line with Euro-Atlantic values”. His remark was a pointed one, given Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO.

In Tbilisi, Matias Ersi of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said the forthcoming election should be exemplary if Georgia was to restore its democratic image.

“The [recent] developments have damaged Georgia’s reputation as a leader of democratic reforms. The break-up of the demonstrators and shutout of TV-channels are utterly unacceptable facts in a democratic system,” said Ersi. “The January 5 election has to become an example of how standards of the election process should be observed. Otherwise, trust towards Georgia will be shaken. Georgia’s image has been thrown into the balance.”

Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, said the Georgian leadership must ensure that its actions complied with the European Convention on Human Rights and that “any restrictions are proportionate and justified”.

In his public statements, Saakashvili has appeared unabashed by such criticisms.

He promised to repeal the state of emergency “very soon”, as soon as he felt stability was being restored. But he insisted this would not happen “at somebody else’s bidding”.

“I am accountable not to the foreign minister of some country, but to Georgia,” he said.

However, many observers believe Georgian leaders are acutely sensitive to how they are viewed by the international community, which has hitherto been supportive of Saakashvili’s administration and his sometimes controversial actions.

“The West’s reaction was catastrophic for Mikheil Saakashvili’s image as a democrat,” said Ivlian Khaindrava of the opposition Republican Party.

Political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze believes Saakashvili’s decision comes with significant risks.

“Saakashvili is retreating and advancing at one and the same time. The opposition hasn’t much time left to prepare for the election properly,” he said. “On the other hand, Saakashvili has made a concession by deciding that the presidential and parliamentary elections should be held at different dates - this is what the opposition was calling for. However, the presidential election will be held only two months after the break-up of demonstrations that have created a difficult situation in the country and damaged its international image. Will Saakashvili be able to regain voters’ confidence?”

Khaindrava predicts that Saakashvili will not win outright and the election will have to go forward to a second round. If that happens, and the opposition wins, he promises that the new administration will transform Georgia from a presidential to a parliamentary republic.

As domestic political events gather pace, Georgia’s already tense relationship with its northern neighbour Russia have deteriorated further.

Tbilisi accused Moscow of supporting the opposition as a way of destabilising the country and weakening the Saakashvili government, and ordered three Russian embassy employees to leave the country after accusing them of suspicious contacts with the opposition.

Russian ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko called the move “an unprecedented provocation”, and said three Georgian diplomats would be expelled in response.

On October 12, students returned to schools and colleges for the first time since the state of emergency was imposed. In Tbilisi, traffic was at normal levels and there was no sign of police being out in force.

In the capital, many resident interviewed by IWPR said they had not noticed any particular changes since the state of emergency came into force.

“We’ve been living our routine life,” said Sandro Benia, 47. “The state of emergency is apparent only when I instinctively switch my TV to the channel where Imedi used to be. It’s very saddening to see a blank screen in its place.”

Mikhail Vignansky is a commentator with the Vremya Novostei newspaper in Tbilisi.