KIEV, Ukraine — Is Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili truly in trouble? Or are the latest political rumblings in the ex-Soviet Caucasus nation — where public affairs often resemble a great opera with their high-volume drama, angst and tears — just the latest tempest in a teacup?
Getting a handle on developments in this volatile mountainous nation of five million, which fought a disastrous war with northern neighbor Russia last August, can be a challenge, even if you live here. The range of political theories is surpassed only by the number of figures vying for power, and the prediction of possible outcomes range across the political spectrum, from one extreme to another.
Nevertheless, something seems afoot. Saakashvili, the country’s headstrong, charismatic leader is looking increasingly embattled. Two highly-respected erstwhile allies, former Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze and ex-ambassador to the United Nations Irakli Alasania — have broken ranks and are now calling for the president’s removal.
The two politicians each lead their own opposition camp, and although they differ on the means, they agree on the end goal: Saakashvili must go. Immediately.
It is not an idle threat, given Georgia’s tumultuous history. Saakashvili, along with Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania — the prime minister who died four years ago under circumstances that have not been entirely explained — themselves swept to power in the 2003 “Rose Revolution.” At that time, weeks of protests over falsified parliamentary elections culminated in their toppling the country’s longtime ruler — and figure of international prominence — Eduard Shevardnadze.
Last week, Burjanadze called for Saakashvili to resign by April 9. Alasania demanded a national referendum in the next 10 days to produce new presidential elections. Both politicians promise countrywide protests until their demands are met.
“We want to bring about a change of leadership by peaceful, constitutional means, by means of protest actions, and to embark upon a process of building genuine democracy,” Burjanadze said.
Georgia’s opposition says that Saakashvili, instead of fulfilling his democratic promises, has created a quasi-authoritarian state, stifling media and anti-government voices. Since the war with Russia last year, they also accuse him of unnecessarily leading the country into a conflict that led to the possibly permanent loss of the country’s two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (Alasania was Georgia’s chief negotiator to talks on Abkhazia before assuming the U.N. ambassadorship.)
The question is: can the weak, fractious but now newly-united Georgian opposition achieve anything? Its track record up to this point, full of squabbling and focused on personalities and not issues, is less than impressive. It also may be overestimating its popularity. At the same time, few gave Saakashvili, Burjanadze and Zhvania much of a chance of removing the seeming invincible Shevardnadze when they launched their initially miniscule street demonstrations in November 2003.
“Oppositions can get very strong, very fast once you reach a tipping point with the government,” said Lincoln Mitchell, a professor for international politics at Columbia University and author of a recent book on the Rose Revolution called “Uncertain Democracy.”
“Georgia is not there yet, but conceivably could be there very soon,” he continued, adding that the country at the moment is not a full democracy, but a “semi-democracy” as it was under Shevardnadze, but of a different sort.
Still, most are predicting a long road for the opposition. “I think right now Saakashvili is as strong as never before,” said Levan Ramishvili, chairman of the Liberty Institute, an independent think tank that was heavily involved in the Rose Revolution. “It’s not just because of his personal strength, but also the relative weakness of his opponents.”
Alexander Rondeli of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies agrees: “They aren’t very serious … . They’re weaker than before, despite the fact that Georgia is in a more difficult situation.”
Then there is the fact that Georgia just recently had extraordinary presidential elections. After an aggressive crackdown on street protests, which witnessed some of the worst violence in years between demonstrators and police, Saakashvili called an early election in January 2008 as a referendum on his leadership. He won with 53 percent of the vote, extending his term until 2013, and his party took 80 percent of the seats in an early parliamentary vote the following May.
Whatever the outcome, Saakashvili’s reputation has taken a profound beating since the war with Russia last year, observers say. The outsized political personality who graduated from Columbia law school and stormed the Georgian parliament with a rose clutched in his hand — and was a poster child for the Bush administration’s democracy-building aspirations — is now being regarded with a more skeptical eye by western officials.
A series of news articles and international reports — the most recent by the European Union and British House of Lords — while recognizing Russia’s disproportionate response (and the Kremlin’s creeping annexation of Georgia’s breakaway territories in the years leading up to the fighting), question Georgian authorities' assertions that they had no choice other than to shell the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, which sparked the conflict.
“There’s a certain understanding in the West that Saakashvili shares a huge amount of the blame for [the August war],” said Oksana Antonenko, the Russia and Eurasia program director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “They don’t trust him as much.”
More GlobalPost dispatches by David L. Stern