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25 May 2009

Dysfunctional Georgia

Saakashvili addressing a Tbilisi audience
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Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Georgia festers under political crisis as the opposition seeks the resignation of a stubborn Saakashvili, Karl Rahder reports from Tbilisi for ISN Security Watch.

By Karl Rahder in Tbilisi for ISN

A ride into Tbilisi along the George W Bush highway is more or less what it has been since the 2003 Rose Revolution. Here and there amid the newly painted Soviet housing blocks are signs of investment and change, with new schools and the occasional rakish architecture of a gleaming business center. As long as you avoid a few blocks of Rustaveli Avenue, you might never know that Georgia is embroiled in an ongoing political crisis.

The opposition has skillfully employed symbols throughout the crisis, which has festered since the revolution, but took root on 9 April, the anniversary of the day in 1989 when Soviet troops crushed a popular uprising. Its most powerful symbol is the jail cell, with hundreds of mock cells lining Rustaveli Avenue as part of a protest movement. 

The crisis is largely (but not entirely) personality-driven, with a cast of antagonists who were former allies in the revolution that was supposed to transform Georgia from a corrupt, failed state into a democratic oasis in the South Caucasus, a region of strategic importance to both the US and Russia.

Nino Burjanadze, parliamentary speaker and two-time acting president, was not long ago one of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s closest advisors. Today, she says that if the opposition fails, Georgia will become a “dictatorship.”

Salome Zourbichvili, who has spent much of her life outside Georgia and was named foreign minister by Saakashvili, is now one of his most vocal critics and has demanded his resignation.

Irakli Alasania was Saakashvili’s ambassador to the UN and now is also in the opposition.

But the two most colorful figures in this drama are the president himself and a television personality who lives in a mock-up jail cell on a studio set at the pro-opposition television channel “Maestro.” Giorgi Gachechiladze, the host of “Cell No. 5,” is probably the most visible persona of the opposition, and his cell is where Gachechiladze and his guests engage in political catharsis (his guests are often former Saakashvili allies who indulge in mea culpas in front of the camera) and a bit of guerilla theater. On 6 May, Gachechiladze emerged from his television cell to join demonstrators outside a Tbilisi police station who were demanding the release of three teenage boys being held for assaulting a journalist just outside the Channel One studio. Gachechiladze was injured in the melee that followed.

It is hard to say just how much support the opposition has in Georgia today, despite the occasional rallies that can draw 20,000 participants. The opposition, cobbled together from a number of small parties and other groups have little in common other than a deep animosity for Saakashvili. 

The president, they say, has lost his mandate to govern, is dangerously out of touch with the people and is responsible for losing two Georgian provinces to Russia last August during a short and decisive war. Their one demand is that Saakashvili must resign.  A new presidential election, along with parliamentary elections, would then take place.  

Deep distrust

After a month of rallies, the opposition claim that they won’t quit until the president resigns. But the rallies do not seem to be gaining much momentum, and Georgians, at least anecdotally, seem to be growing tired of a protest movement that has brought Parliament to a virtual halt and ties up traffic.

The protest cells are about four meters long, two meters wide and two meters high; each is labeled with a number and covered with plastic. Often, rope is fashioned to resemble the bars of a jail cell. Inside the cells are makeshift beds, tea kettles and personal items. The inhabitants tell reporters often that they are unemployed, and rumors persist that they are being paid.

The cells often are adorned with caricatures of Saakashvili or with copies of the now famous photo of the president posing with an American masseuse named Dorothy Stein. Ms Stein, whose celebrity pseudonym is Dr Dot, has written about her time with the president on her blog, where she describes him as “the best-looking president on earth.” The photo of the president and the masseuse is everywhere among the cells – a gift, it seems, from a remarkably immature chief executive to the people who want to remove him from office and prosecute him. 

The level of distrust is so deep that many opposition supporters blame the president for virtually every dark chapter in Georgia’s post-revolutionary history, including the deaths of a former prime minister who was accidentally asphyxiated (or not) in 2005,and the late co-owner of Imedi TV, who died at his home in England in 2008, as well as the alleged cover-up of the kidnapping and murder of a bank executive in 2006. 

The news on 5 May that a tank battalion based at Mukhrovani (about 30 kilometers east of Tbilisi) had staged a rebellion has also sparked a number of theories propounded by the opposition. On the day of the rebellion, the government announced that the plotters had planned to move against Tbilisi and charged that the Russian government was involved. 

In an interview with ISN Security Watch, Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili was careful in his wording when describing the possible motives of the mutineers. The plan may have been poorly thought-out, he speculated, and despite initial government claims that the Russians were involved, Utiashvili said it was possible that the leaders of the revolt simply assumed that as the battalion headed for Tbilisi, other units would join them and that they might even receive help from the Russian army. 

“But we really don’t know yet. We need to apprehend [alleged mastermind] Kota Otanadze.  That’s the key. And after we have him and any other conspirators in custody, we will find out what really happened.” 

Opposition leaders scoff at the idea that the Russians were involved and even that a rebellion actually took place. Among the theories are that the president had the incident staged to sabotage the NATO exercise that was taking place in Georgia during the same week (his motives for doing this are rarely articulated) or even that the officers rebelled because they had been ordered to disperse the cells in Tbilisi.

Manana Natchkebia, a member of parliament from New Rights Party told ISN Security Watch: “In reality […] the protesters might have been attacked by the government, so the unit did not want to participate. Any verbal evidence of the military officers that was shown on television always ends in the same story - that their commanders called them and told them to be ready for something. But […] we don’t know, really.”

Utiashvili was scornful of this theory and referred to the video mentioned by Natchkebia. “You can see it yourself on our website. The commander was saying, ‘Misha is finished. This is our chance to come to power!’” 

While Utiashvili added that the tapes also indicated that the plotters thought the “Russians will stand by us,” he said that it was still unclear as to whether this was merely wishful thinking or a coordinated plot. 

As for Burjanadze, Utiashvili said: “Burjanadze is the most radical opposition leader of them all!” In March, the Interior Ministry announced the arrest of 10 of Burjanadze’s staff on charges of illegal purchases of firearms, a charge that she dismissed as the beginning of a “punitive campaign” against the opposition. The Interior Ministry has released video footage that purportedly shows associates of Burjanadze discussing the purchase of automatic weapons.   
Fragmented political culture

Tbilisi State University political science professor Zviad Abashidze talked to ISN Security Watch about Georgia’s political culture: “When the opposition and the ruling party can’t reach an agreement or come to negotiations or compromise […] I would say that it’s an articulation of the fragmented political culture we have here.” 

The various parties, both pro-government and opposition, tend to represent the interests of narrow segments of society, he said. Asked if this means that no party can gain widespread support, he said: “Absolutely!  That’s why the so-called party system is not a consolidated multi-party system. It’s not like that […]. The government party and the opposition - they represent the political elites, generally speaking. They have a responsibility to conduct a constitutional democracy, but someone has to establish democracy!” 

The continuing political polarization in Georgia has from the beginning been about personalities rather than issues, he said: “Politics from my point of view has to be de-personalized, not mono-personalized, like we have here.” 

A “protest concert” by Giorgi Gachechiladze was held on 20 May in the western port of Batumi, which is to be followed by a “march on Tbilisi” - a trek of roughly 400 kilometers. Those making the march plan to rendezvous with Tbilisi demonstrators for a mass rally on 26 May, Georgia’s Independence Day. 

Also on 20 May, alleged mutiny conspirators Koba Otanadze and Levan Amiridze were captured in a shootout with police on the outskirts of Tbilisi. Amiridze had been a Georgian Army Ranger commander. The Interior Ministry says that the two were planning to escape to South Ossetia with a third man who was killed in the gun battle. 

Few Georgians expect that Saakashvili will resign. So for now, the stalemate will sputter along, with nightly rallies and political theater and the occasional violent confrontations with police. New scandals are surely to come, and more blood will be shed. It doesn’t feel like a revolution in the making, but it certainly doesn’t look like a functioning, mature society.

Karl Rahder was the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch and currently writes the Caucasus Blog for the Foreign Policy Association. Aside from his work as a journalist, he also teaches International Relations at universities in the US and the former Soviet Union.


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