Tbilisi has been overrun by tens of thousands of protestors. An estimated 60,000 people have turned up outside of Georgia’s parliament to rally against President Mikhail Saakashvili, blaming him for the 2008 disastrous conflict with Russia and continuing economic recession, as well as accusing him of stifling democracy.
While the protests have remained peaceful so far, the threat of a violent breakdown is ensuring a tense atmosphere. The next few hours and/or days of protest could result in the decline of Saakashvili’s power, and a possible reversal in Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Those protesting against the President are demanding the immediate resignation of a once-popular leader that was swept into power by the 2003 Rose Revolution. The cause of his soured image is three-fold.
First, Saakashivili bore the brunt of the blame for the 2008 Russia debacle. The Wall Street Journal captured a quote laying this out in civilian terms, “Let’s imagine we live in a civilized European country, as the current president likes to imagine Georgia to be, and its leader starts a war that he loses disgracefully,” said Georgy Tarkhnishvili, 40, a physicist. “Does he stay in power? Of course not.”
Saakashivili, a US-trained lawyer, was even criticized by key allies for his handling of the conflict. Irakli Alasania, former ambassador to the United Nations, broke with the President over the war and is now taking part in heading the opposition.
Secondly, the President is at the receiving end of the anger of those suffering from the economic downturn. Any leadership that may have led to relative prosperity in the past has been overshadowed by a fleeing of investors during the conflict with Russia, which initially sparked the downturn. This has only been compounded by the global financial crisis.
Finally (as reported by the New York Times) the aforementioned Mr. Alasania “told the crowd that Mr. Saakashvili had spurned the values of the democratic movement that brought him to power.” The London Timescontinues that he has been accused of “persecuting critics, stifling the media and concentrating power in his own hands.”
Indeed, in 2007 the government made the mistake of overreacting to a similar protest with rubber bullets and tear gas. This response drew widespread international criticism, including from its ally, the United States.
With such a pile of complaints, will the protests actually result in President Saakashvili stepping down from, or being removed from, power? That may depend upon how well he can control his police.
The New York Times argues that it remains unclear as to whether there is widespread support for the President’s resignation. Certainly the opposition remains relatively disjointed. The absolute worst thing the government could do at this time would be to overreact as they did in 2007, giving the opposition something concrete over which to unite.
Luckily, they seem to be aware of this fact. TheBBC reported that, “Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said the government would “not intervene or impede members of the protest in expressing their will freely” but indicated that the authorities could take action if they deemed it necessary.” This intention of non-intervention seems to be visible, as The New York Times noted a “striking lack of law enforcement personnel on the streets around the event Thursday.”
There is something to fear in the possibility of an opposition provocation of violence. According to the Financial Times, “Ten men linked to the opposition were arrested last month on charges of buying weapons and plotting unrest.” The opposition is also claiming that massive amounts of arrests were committed last night; an accusation which is denied by the government.
A violent overreaction by any government in the face of provocation is not unprecedented. Needless to say, such occurrences generally do not benefit the government’s stance, especially not one that has a precarious hold to begin.
Even if the government manages to keep a handle on the police reaction (which is not an easy task), will Saakashvili be able to hold on to power? Perhaps. As mentioned, the opposition remains in general disunity, as exemplified by the sheer number of flags at the protest. In addition, no armed group appears to exist which could represent the opposition or challenge the National Army.
The larger threat may involve US-Russia relations and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Saakashvili has been ostensibly pro-Western and a US ally. The President has made NATO membership a priority, which has been a thorn in the side of Russia. What would be the US reaction to the worst-case-scenario of a Russian-engineered coup? There is no doubt that Russia is in support of the opposition and there would be pressure for the US to come to the aid of the President.
What of Georgia’s NATO aspirations and pro-Western stance should Saakashvili’s replacement be focused on creating friendly ties with Russia?
With all this talk of pushing the reset button with Russia, the Georgian protests are a case of bad timing. It is now a game of wait-and-see. Wait-and-see if the protests remain peaceful or if any in the opposition will provoke a violent reaction from the government. Wait-and-see what their next move is if Saakashvili continues to stand by his plan of serving his entire term.
The London Times reported that, “Organisers have given him 24 hours in which to reply, before announcing further action.” What this further action is, and whether the opposition can unite to produce it, will be unveiled in the coming days.
Valerie Nichols is a web editor at the Atlantic Council.