On April 9 and successive days, people took to the streets of Tbilisi calling upon Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign.  The President remains in office, as a majority of Georgians want.  However, the demonstrations have not been for naught—the peaceful, democratic demeanor of demonstrators and government alike has burnished Georgia’s image abroad. 

Now, Georgians must decide whether to consolidate this gain for Georgia and build upon it.

The choice of April 9 as the day to launch the protests is fraught with symbolism for Georgians and it imposes significant responsibility on them.  On that day in 1989, Soviet security forces hacked 20 independence demonstrators to death on Rustaveli Avenue.  Gray stones in the pavement before independent Georgia’s Parliament mark where they fell.  The 25,000 demonstrators who trod upon those stones on April 9, 2009 bore a special responsibility to honor the cause for which those brave Georgians died.

So far, ordinary people participating in the demonstrations have borne that responsibility well.  On April 10 and 11, their numbers dwindled and their tactics changed.  They split into three groups, one remaining on Rustaveli Avenue and the others marching to the First Channel government television station and the neighborhood of Avalbari, near the President’s Administration building.  They closed three main thoroughfares between 3 and 9 pm.  The action was suspended for Bzoba—Palm Sunday—although some people appeared on Rustaveli Avenue silently to protest the vandalism that destroyed parts of the stage used by the protest leaders. Apart from the damaged stage, a few scuffles in the crowd and sporadic claims of beatings, there has been no violence and no broken windows.  This is all the more remarkable because, following a conscious government decision, the police have kept away from demonstration venues.

World press coverage has been light—other events overshadowed the peaceful demonstrations in Tbilisi.  Somali pirates kidnapped the captain of an American cargo ship, and Italy buried nearly 300 victims of the earthquake in its Abruzzi Region. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales embarked upon a hunger strike in a tussle with Congress over a new electoral law.  In the United Kingdom, Derek Draper, an assistant to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, resigned when it was revealed that he was smearing opposition politicians in E Mails sent from his computer at 10 Downing Street.

There was plenty of news last week, political hijinks, and juicier demonstrations than those in Tbilisi.  In Thailand Saturday, the so-called “red shirt” opposition blocked streets in Bangkok and overran the venue for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the seaside resort of Pattaya.  This forced the Thai government to cancel the summit and evacuate some international leaders by helicopter.  “The task for me and the government now,” said Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, “is to provide security for the leaders to travel back home safely.” On Monday morning, Thai security forces, wielding rifles, truncheons and shields, chased demonstrators through downtown Bangkok.  Boring images of Tbilisi that arrived in newsrooms around the world drew a sharp contrast—and that is good for Georgia.

Leave aside the blame game that swirls around the Tbilisi events of November 7, 2007.  As April 9, 2009 approached, foreign observers—investors, NATO, European Union and more—were set to compare and contrast this year’s demonstrations with those of seventeen months ago.  A video stream of dramatic events would have been most unwelcome.  A set of uninteresting snapshots is a welcome surprise.  What the Georgian people—government and demonstrators together—have achieved is not just a soothing image abroad, but proof that Georgia is a developing democracy.  Underscore the ing because Georgians have shown not only their ability to deal with each other in lawful and civil ways, but also to learn lessons and apply them.  This is the great achievement of April 9!

However, April is not yet over, and across every positive development blows a countervailing wind.  Georgians must discuss and decide the next steps.  Some will wallow in intransigence, hatching plans ever more mischievous and harmful to Georgia. However, many people—demonstrators and government—will understand the victory already achieved, the giant step for Georgian democracy taken in the last few days.  People of goodwill can build upon that achievement with peaceful and constructive dialog.  Some opposition leaders already speak in such terms.

What they decide—indeed, how they decide it—is a matter for Georgians alone to determine.  Their friends can only wish them well.  However—make no mistake—foreign observers will draw their conclusions about Georgia accordingly.  And foreign investment, NATO, EU, visa regimes and so much more depend on their conclusions.

At the time of this writing—about 1500 on Monday—Georgia looks better to foreigners than it did one week ago.  Whether that impression lasts depends on the people of Georgia.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.  A slightly different version of this column appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.