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Georgia: progress, interrupted

Robert Parsons
16 November 2007

President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia told a meeting of doctors in Tbilisi on 14 November 2007 that his decision to order the break up the opposition demonstration a week earlier had been necessary to prevent the country sliding back to the chaos and civil confrontation of the mid-1990s. The justification contains an element of truth - but one that also underlines the extent of his miscalculation.

The demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi had entered into its sixth day when Saakashvili decided to act. Popular irritation at the disruption caused by the blockage of the capital's main street was growing - as was alarm at the opposition's call for a permanent street protest until Saakashvili resigned. After the turmoil of the 1990s, there is no stomach in Georgia for revolution.

The criticism - at home and abroad - would have been far more muted if the police response had been proportionate to the threat. The numbers involved in the demonstration had fallen from 60,000 or so on the first day to a few hundred.

Robert Parsons is international editor of France 24. He earned a doctorate at Glasgow University for a thesis on the origins of Georgian nationalism. He was the BBC's Moscow correspondent (1993-2002), and worked at RFE/RL as director of its Georgian service, senior correspondent and chief producer for multimedia projects.

Also by Robert Parsons in openDemocracy:

"Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)How to explain then the ferocity of the attack by interior-ministry forces and the decision to declare a state of emergency and close down independent television stations?

Saakashvili's knee-jerk response was to blame all on a Russian conspiracy. That Russia is doing its level best to undermine Georgia is not in question but the scale of the protest on Rustaveli Avenue reflected less Moscow's devious intentions than growing popular frustration and anger at the failure of reforms to improve living standards.

Saakashvili's reaction betrays an authoritarian streak that has grown stronger the longer he has been in office. He is intolerant of criticism and contemptuously dismissive of the political opposition.

That is partly because until now he could afford to be. Following the euphoria of the "rose revolution" in November 2003, he won a massive majority in the presidential elections of January 2004 and followed that up with an almost equally conclusive victory in the parliamentary elections in March 2004. Since then, however, the marginalisation of the opposition has done neither him nor Georgian democracy any favours.

At the same time, the opposition must also take its share of the blame. Ten parties have come together now in the National Council of the United Public Movement; but in reality they are united by little more than a visceral hatred of Saakashvili.

In almost four years of opposition, none of these parties has succeeded in building an electoral base or in developing a reform programme capable of challenging Saakashvili's United National Movement. In this sense, the opposition's incompetence has fuelled Saakashvili's arrogance.

Tbilisi's balance-sheet

Yet it is too early to write off Georgia as a failed democracy. It is encouraging that Saakashvili has responded to the avalanche of domestic and international criticism by calling a snap election on 5 January 2008 and a referendum on the key opposition demand of parliamentary elections in April.

Let the people decide, he says. And in stark contrast to Russia, he has called on the international community to send as many election observers as it likes.

This is the behaviour of a man confident in himself and his ability to convince the Georgian electorate that he is still the best man for the job. And with some reason - for amid the welter of accusations levelled Saakashvili's way, it is easy to forget his achievements.

When Saakashvili came to power, Georgia was on the brink of economic collapse, taxes were not being collected, the country's borders were largely a fiction, smuggling was endemic, corruption rife in the police, the customs and the judiciary and business asphyxiated in a tangle of red-tape.

By 2006, the World Bank rated Georgia the leading global reformer - praising it for improving its business start-up procedures, cleaning up the customs service, streamlining labour regulations, cutting the number of licences enormously and introducing specialised courts.

The governnment has also launched a massive drive to combat corruption at all levels - including, in the early days, dismissing and replacing the entire traffic police - and a systematic privatisation of the economy that has filled the state coffers with inward investment.

On the other side of the ledger, poverty remains a massive problem. Saakashvili can plead - as he does - that Georgia lost 300,000 jobs in the first fifteen years of independence and that it will take years to replace them, however remarkable the country's growth.

But that does little to convince the unemployed or pensioners. The government has increased pensions from 14 laris (about $8) a month under Eduard Shevardnadze to 50 laris ($32) a month now; but it is still a pittance in a country where inflation in 2007 hovers around 10%.

Saakashvili can no longer blame the negative side of his period of rule on Georgia's straightened circumstances. In the past couple of years, the country has enjoyed a windfall from privatisations of property. The government has poured the greatest share of this into building Georgia's armed forces - a necessary requirement if Georgia is to achieve its aim of joining Nato. This year, defence spending reached $765 million dollars, or 7% of GDP. In a country where close to 50% of the population still lives beneath the poverty line, many believe the president should have put social welfare first.

The political odds

Four years after the rose revolution began - and just a week ahead of the anniversary celebrations on 23 November - Georgia has reached a turning- point. The first four years were about state-building and recovery from ground-zero. The opposition demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue signals that Georgians now want more than that.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Georgian politics:

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)

The good news for the opposition is that it looks set to eat significantly into Saakashvili's massive majority - both in the presidential and the parliamentary elections (whether they are held in April 2008 as it wants, or in the autumn as Saakashvili would prefer).

The bad news for it is that the demonstration often resembled more a civic protest than a political rally. Some banners demanded "Chinese Go Home!", a reaction to the steady but still small Chinese immigration, while others called for higher pensions and educational reform. It's by no means certain that all those on the demonstration would necessarily vote against Saakashvili in a presidential ballot.

The opposition claims to be fielding a joint candidate - Levan Gachechiladze, one of Georgia's leading wine producers and a vocal critic of the government in parliament who is widely respected. With Salome Zurabishvili, the former foreign minister, running alongside him as the opposition candidate for prime minister, he looks a credible force.

In reality, however, the opposition is still badly divided. At least three other of its candidates will run against Gachechiladze: Badri Patarkatsishvili, the multi-millionaire businessman; Shalva Natelashvili, a left-of-centre populist who scares the wits out of the nascent middle class; and Davit Gamkrelidze of the conservative New Rights Party.

Salome Zurabishvili says her team's chances are "really good", because "we have the whole Georgian population behind us". For the moment, that still sounds like wishful thinking.

By calling a election a year ahead of schedule, Saakashvili has regained some of the initiative from the opposition. He is also the only candidate with a nationwide electoral machine already in place and has the advantage of being the incumbent. He is also a formidable electoral campaigner.

A time for repair

Does the clash of recent weeks mean that the rose revolution is - as some would have it - "(dissolving) in tears"? That cannot yet be claimed with any certainty, but much hinges on the election and the lessons learned by all sides from this period of polarisation.

It is clearly essential that the electoral campaign and the vote be scrupulously fair and transparent. For that to happen, the first thing Saakashvili must do (now that the state of emergency is being lifted at 7pm on 16 November) is to restore private television to the airwaves; in particular Imedi TV, which provides the opposition with its main outlet.

The hope of most Georgians will be that the events of the last few weeks have taught Mikheil Saakashvili a measure of humility on the one hand and forged a degree of opposition unity on the other.

How is the British police crackdown bill a threat to democracy?

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