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Georgia: End of a Fairy Tale?

It couldn't have come at a worse time with all three republics in the South Caucasus gearing up for elections to be held next year. Georgia, considered a beacon of [relative] democracy in the region until today, has set an unfortunate precedent given that the opposition in all three countries will protest leading up to the respective votes as well as afterwards. Even the November 2003 Rose Revolution that brought the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, to power was peaceful in comparison to crackdowns by the authorities in neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Today, that all changed with the ironically entitled Steady State publishing a post simply entitled “Crazy in Georgia…” and a link to coverage from TOL Georgia. The two blogs were both established by Transitions Online and in particular, TOL Georgia is a welcome addition to blogging in the region. It's coverage of the events as they unfold has been exemplary with recent updates now reporting attacks on the independent media in the country. Photographs recording scenes in downtown Tbilisi, some of which are posted here, are already up on Flickr courtesy of Davit Rostomashvili.

Tbilisi Protests

Following posts about Kavkasia TV and Imedia TV being taken off the air, TOL Georgia draws a frightening conclusion.

The Imedi TV journalists were threatened with force, kicked out from the TV station and had their mobiles phones seized.

[…]

A person was just beaten up by the additional internal affairs troops entering the TV station…

In how many democratic countries this happen???

Probably Imedi TV will be unveiled as Russian traitor TV… Shameful. This starts to look like clear-cut dictatorship…

Tbilisi Protests

According to the authorities, Georgia's traditional foe, Russia, is behind the trouble in Tbilisi. International media outlets are already reporting that Saakashvili is pointing the finger directly at Moscow. The Internal Security Services, for example, have already released audio and video recordings of meetings between opposition figures and alleged Russian intelligence service agents. Georgia's Ambassador to Russia has apparently been recalled.

The opposition denies the claims, as do bloggers such as Artmika at Unzipped who instead suggest that the Georgian government and Saakashvili in particular is using Russia as a scapegoat for the country's own internal problems.

I think Saakashvili seriously suffers from spy-mania. Actually, it’s a very convenient pathological condition, successfully used back in Soviet times and elsewhere to shut dissident voices. As expected, he blamed everything on Russia, and Russian “special agents”. An extremely convenient trick for anyone who perhaps feels that grounds under his power are shattering. He used it before too, and apparently from now on any discontent with his policy and regime will be considered a treason. Good old days are back. And good to ensure continuous Western support too.

The Armenian blogger, now based in England, does however mention a Georgian friend who is filling him in with details from on the ground. According to Unzipped, the situation is getting out of control on both sides. However, he concludes, the main blame lies with the authorities for adopting heavy handed tactics to disperse an opposition protest.

My Georgian friend from Tbilisi blamed opposition too. He condemned government’s excessive use of force but suggested that opposition was to blame too. They provoked police and were not really up for a dialogue with the ruling regime, and “both sides acted ugly.” I am sure that opposition is not any better (just names of people who are behind the opposition are enough to put me off; also ridiculous mass prayers during their rallies – oh dear…). But I know one thing, when those in ruling power use excessive force against civilians, there is something wrong with their power. Therefore, I blame government. […]

The blogger concludes that “as long as [Saakashvili] is in power, there will be no calm in Georgia and no prospect for democracy.” On his other blog, he posts photographs from today's clash, and back at TOL Georgia, jibs concurs with Artmika's dismay at blaming unrest on Russia.

Just listened to President Saakashvili’s speech on the latest developments in Georgia, involving the forceful dispersal of the opposition demonstration.

[…]

He put the blame on Russia again.

I think Russians need to pack on and leave somewhere towards South America, so that they are not blamed for Georgia’s internal affairs.

[…]

How can all this be blamed on Russia? Are those 70,000 people that showed up in the first day of the protests ALL Russian puppets? […]

[…]

Long live our savior and protector against the Russian dark magic!

Tbilisi Protests

Gregory Levonian at GL.Mimino.Org writes from Tbilisi on the day's developments even though he admits he tries to steer clear of politics on his blog. Saying that “things are not well” in Georgia, the blogger perhaps represents how most Georgian citizens feel, regardless of their ethnicity. He praises Saakashvili for what he has achieved, but is now concerned about the direction the country is heading in.

[I]ts really hard to support the opposition here since they really don't have much of a platform and it also seems to me that people have always had unreasonably high expectation of Saakshvili but all this notwithstanding there is no question that our Misha (as he's often called) has become less and less sensitive to those around him.

[…] He is a populist. He marginalizes those who disagree with him.

But still, he was truly committed to Georgia and the best democrat the country had ever seen.

At least, that was until today. Now, nobody knows what's happening and the whole city is in shock and horror.

[…]

I can't believe I'm writing this, but the city has the feel that it's under occupation. […]

Others observing from afar also have mixed feelings about what is occurring in the Georgian capital. underWater desert Blogging, for example, remembers visiting the country and says that it was “amazing.” Indeed, the blogger obviously had such a good impression of Georgia that they hope something positive will occur.

There are huge possibilities for good in this country and I hope that the President, Saakashvili is smart enough to be able to quell this thing without having to resort to Soviet era tactics of repression. I will be an unequivocal supporter of him if he can figure out a way to address the core of what the protestors are saying […].

Global Voices’ Veronica Khokhlova at Neeka's Backlog, however, does not seem so convinced. Posting a story she wrote at the time of the 2003 Rosie Revolution hoping that Georgia's problems would now be behind it, Khokhlova seems as disappointed and shocked at what is happening as almost everybody else.

I really hoped Saakashvili would let them protest all they wanted, but he's an impatient guy, unfortunately, and so he ended up using some force today to get them out.

I haven't been following the situation in Georgia too closely, but BBC tells me “the protesters accuse President Saakashvili of corruption and of not doing enough to tackle poverty” – and I've no reasons not to believe them.

More updates on events as they happen will undoubtedly be found on the excellent TOL Georgia and on BBC correspondent Matthew Collin's This is Tbilisi Calling. Indeed, as writing this post comes to an end, TOL Georgia has made one more post announcing that a State of Emergency has now been declared.

Four years ago, the current authorities came to power through mass demonstrations against the Shevarnadze regime, and back then the mass media was left untouched. Saakashvili does it differently — this must be a democratic measure I have never heard about.

This is why the demonstrations swept Georgia in the first place, and not because of an “evil” Russia. Russia looks way more democratic right now than Georgia. This is the end of the Rose Revolution myth in Georgia.

Or as Unzipped put it earlier in the day, “This is the end of Saakashvili's fairy tale. […] Georgians will not forgive him for this attack.”

Tbilisi Protests

Photographs accompanying this post are © Davit Rostomashvili. These and other photographs can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/barrygeo/.

27 comments

  • Latest press release from the Organization for Security
    and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – http://www.osce.org

    OSCE Chairman calls for calm and dialogue in Georgia

    MADRID, 7 November 2007 – The OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, expressed his concern today regarding recent events in Georgia where a state of emergency has been declared following clashes between demonstrators and police and two TV stations have been closed.

    “I hope the Georgian authorities and the opposition will do their utmost to prevent a deterioration of the situation,” said Minister Moratinos. “I and urge everybody to remain calm, avoid excesses and engage in constructive dialogue.”

    He also emphasised that a solution to a situation of this nature can only be found through dialogue based on democratic principles.

  • […] full post is available on Global Voices Online. Posted by Onnik @ 1:38 am. Filed under: Democracy, Georgia, Politics, Media, Freedom of […]

  • Mark Mckinnon’s blog has also posted an entry:

    The latest out of Georgia is that riot police, acting on the orders of President Mikhail Saakashvili, have dispersed several thousand anti-government protestors using tear gas, water cannons, fists and batons.

    In a televised address, Saakashvili said the protests were part of a Russian plot to create unrest in the country. He promised he had “incontrovertible evidence” of such nefariousness that he would release “soon.”

    We’ll see.

    […]

    The people still own the streets in Ukraine, for better and for worse. That’s no longer so in Georgia.

    […]

    As has Jack’s life in a nutshell:

    On November 2 a peaceful demonstration had start in front of the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi, well I should say peaceful until today. Today the government had broke up the demonstration and then all hell broke loose. The Georgian police and military was called in. they used tear gas and water cannons on the crowds. The government has called a state of emergency and the shut down the NEWS stations, which was fuelling the demonstrators. The NEWS stations will be down for a day or two until order can be restored.

    They are suggesting to everyone in Tbilisi to stay in their homes and to avoid any unnecessary travel within Tbilisi. I watched on the NEWS before they shut them down where the demonstrators had got a hold on to one of the military personnel and damn near killed him in their fit of rage. From my sources in Tbilisi right now, the next thing to go in to effect will be a curfew.

    Hopefully in the next two days everything will calm down to normal order. Right now the rest of the country is pretty peaceful, I am happy I an outside Tbilisi right now and I am NOT planning to head back to Tbilisi until everything has calmed back down and order has been restored.

  • A lone voice in the global conversation so far, ConservativeINC appears to buy into Saakashvili’s line:

    At first blush I have to say that I think that Russia is behind this. Under the leadership of Putin Russia has gone from being a dysfunctional democracy to a dysfunctional quasi-tyranny. One of the things the Soviet Union did was aggressively extend its power beyond its borders. It used its military to control countries like Georgia and I wouldn’t put it past the present Russian government to do something in the same vain. Think about it, it is very likely that Russia was behind the rash of assassinations on dissidents within and outside its borders. Why not assassinate a country’s government?

    Actually, the self-proclaimed La Russophobe seems to agree:

    Writing in the Moscow Times, hero journalist Yulia Latynina explains the horror of Russia’s foreign policy towards Georgia:

    For over a week straight, television news reports have been showing demonstrations against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and they claim that his regime is on the verge of collapse.

    In the same spirit, news reports from the 1970s showed demonstrations in the United States accompanied by self-gratifying predictions that U.S. imperialism would soon collapse. The propagandists did not understand that open political demonstrations are a sign of weakness only under a dictatorship; in democratic nations, they are a sign of a strong and secure government.

    Well, that’s as it may be, but many would argue that yes, demonstrations are a positive aspect of a democracy. However, dispersing them in such a manner without good reason is another matter entirely.

  • Armen Filadelfiatsi

    Nice roundup of blogs, but I don’t understand why the author calls the Saakashvili regime “relatively democratic.” How can a regime put into power through a PR-manufactured revolution be democratic?

    On the contrary, what is happening in Georgia—now—is what is democratic. Its quite clear what is happening there: The country is following the cycle of all countries that are Fiedmanized, starting with Chile. The corrupt government is generally bribed into “liberalizing” the economy, i.e. privatizing everything, the consequences for the people of a liberalized economy start to manifest, and the people revolt. At this point either the people win or the government wins; either a Pinochet takes over or a Chavez (although in the case of Chile the dictator came first).

    People who think that Saakashvili’s heavy handedness is simply a bad decision, an accident related to his character, need to consider the high probability that Saakashvili knows or has been told exactly what is happening and knows that allowing the demonstrations to continue will very likely lead to his downfall, because the demonstrators are not going to quit, because the poverty they live in is not going to quit. It’s called “Democracy,” and it looks very different from a PR-manufactured fake government.

  • Armen, I didn’t say Georgia was “relatively democratic.” I said that it was a “beacon of [relative] democracy in the region.” The irony is that this was even true under Shevardnadze so it’s not a major accomplishment of Saaksashvili.

    Anyway, the point that I was making was that Georgia was “more democratic” than Armenia and Azerbaijan. How people interpret what that means in the context of the South Caucasus, of course, is another matter.

    Anyway, while I can understand the need to stop tents being erected that would block traffic on Tbilisi’s main central road, the use of riot police like this appears over the top.

    The storming of TV stations by security forces is even worse, as is news that a New York Times photographer — I assume Justyna Mielnikiewicz — had a camera smashed and was injured by police.

    Anyway, freedom of assembly and the policing of opposition rallies was more liberal than in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Police suppression of protests in Azerbaijan at the end of 2003 and Armenia in 2004 were an example of that.

    Until yesterday, that is.

  • […] like Ukraine, points the finger at Moscow. But it may not be that simple. Onnik Krikorian says in his blog that it’s just too easy to put all the blame on the traditional Russian enemy. And convenient […]

  • Great post Onnik.

  • Paul

    1. Some in Armenia are nervously speculating that Saakashvili’s brutal methods of suppression will spread to Armenia’s election as well if things go badly/fraudulently.
    2. This blog of a Peace Corps worker in Georgia claims to have just gotten a call from a Peace Corps staffer that Mikhail will be RESIGNING and calling for new elections. Now I know posting it here sounds like rumor mongering and is quite a big development if true, but since it does come from people connected to the State Department they are in the position to know and I take it more seriously. Sounds pretty extraordinary if true, not sure if I can fully believe it yet or not though so will just have to wait.
    http://danielatherton.blogspot.com/2007/11/times-are-getting-interesting-or-i-said.html
    3. If Saakashvili does indeed resign, might this be a good development in that it’ll show the Armenian authorities that authoritarian crackdowns don’t work well? Sure Armenia is not Georgia where politics is much more explosive to begin with, and there have been at least some brutal crackdowns on protests in Armenia on smaller scales in the past as well… but all I know is I don’t want to see what is happening in Tbilsi going on in Yerevan soon. I’m curious what those who are living there think about that possibility.

  • Paul, it’s an interesting point about calling an early election effectively as a vote of confidence for sure. Of course, we have to hope that the conduct of the election is at least the same than that which brought Saakashvili to power.

    However, when I was last in Georgia earlier this year I wasn’t too happy with all the propaganda ads along the highways, for example. The ads, in particular, should be considered a violation of the electoral code in my opinion.

    They hardly contribute to a “level playing ground” unless the opposition is free to do the same across the country.

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