Saakashvili the Survivor

Post-war opposition protests have strengthened the Georgian president.

Saakashvili the Survivor

Post-war opposition protests have strengthened the Georgian president.

Georgia’s defeat last August severely damaged President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had repeatedly promised to regain the breakaway territories but ended up losing what little control over them Tbilisi had.

In response, opposition groups launched mass demonstrations against his rule but, strangely, the months of disobedience and protests appear to have strengthened rather than weakened the president. He has survived the worst the opposition could throw at him, and his opponents are now demoralised and scattered.

Activists lined Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main artery for traffic, with tents symbolising prison cells on April 9, pledging to keep the road blocked until Saakashvili stepped down. But on July 23, they allowed the tents to be moved aside, and traffic began to flow once more.

“I don’t understand why they gathered us together and kept us in these ‘cells’ for so long. If the opposition was ready to halt the protest just like that, then why bother starting it,” asked Zurab, a 51-year-old protester who came all the way from western Georgia to protest, but was now going back, angry and disappointed.

At their peak, the protests gathered as many as 70 thousand people. However, by the time the anniversary of the war came round, there were just several dozen holding placards outside parliament.

The opposition had been joined in their protests by major politicians such as ex-speaker Nino Burjanadze, ex-ambassador Irakly Alasania and ex-prime minister Zurab Nogaideli. Their demand for Saakashvili’s resignation remained unfulfilled, though, and they seemed unable to settle for smaller concessions.

Levan Gachechiladze, who stood against Saakashvili at the last elections and who has been leading the protests, ended up admitting that the president’s opponents would have to come up with a new “joint programme for a continuation of the struggle”, which suggested he recognised the activists’ tactics had failed.

“This is a defeat not for the opposition, but for the plans and methods which it used. I do not see the logical connection between a great mass of people standing on the street and the resignation of the government. The end of the protest just showed the weakness of this method of raising the question,” said Shalva Pichkhadze, head of the Georgia in NATO analysis centre, who has observed the protests.

“The opposition has to prepare for the next elections, and not waste resources on demanding that elections be held immediately.”

Saakashvili’s term as president does not end until 2013 and many analysts were now saying he was likely to manage to sit the whole period out.

“After the August war, there was an expectation inside and outside Georgia that the public protest could lead to a change of government. However, this did not happen. In reality, there was opposition to Saakashvili in Georgia, but it was not strong enough,” said Gia Nodia, another political expert.

“Essentially you have to say that Saakashvili’s authority has strengthened over the course of the year.”

Saakashvili, perhaps feeling more confident, laid out a series of proposed reforms last month in an attempt to end the stand-off in the country. He himself came to power in a revolution, but said he was not afraid of protests and slogans, and would not give into to pressure from the streets.

“Our doors are always open for the leaders of the opposition,” he said.

Dimitry Avaliani is a correspondent for 24 hours in Tbilisi.
Support our journalists