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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/.

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