TBILISI, Georgia — For the thousands who have gathered in front of parliament in the center of this Caucasus capital, Mikheil Saakashvili is a leader whose expiration date has passed.
Standing on the exact spot where they once greeted the hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution with shouts of “Misha! Misha!” — his nickname — now they cry simply “Tsadi,” or “Leave!”
Pensioners and students, workers and intellectuals have collected here since Thursday of last week to demand the ouster of the man whom they once idolized, but now claim has failed to live up to his initial revolutionary promise. Saakashvili, they say, led their ex-Soviet state into a disastrous war against Russia last August, has shown authoritarian tendencies, and insufficiently shielded the country from the world economic crisis.
Often the criticisms are personal, as if against a close friend — befitting a country of just 4.6 million inhabitants where politics often resembles a family fight. To his supporters, Saakashvili is young, dynamic, decisive and flamboyant, though full of quirks. To his detractors, he is impulsive, reckless and possibly emotionally unstable.
“He is sick — we don’t need him,” said Lika Kakabadze, deputy director of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, as she gathered with up to 40,000 other demonstrators on the first day of the protests.
“I supported him at first,” said her companion, a sharply dressed sculptor in a Timberland jacket who gave his name simply as Nodar. “Now I realize that I made a mistake.”
This tiny country, with a population less than half that of New York City and a territory roughly that of South Carolina, is facing a protracted political struggle, which may end in violence or further instability. This matters because Georgia remains a country central to western plans for democracy and economic development in the former Soviet sphere.
The anti-Saakashvili feeling seemed to run both deep and intense on parliament square and in offshoot rallies in front of state television and the presidential residence. However, it is unclear how widespread this sentiment is among the rest of the country, and whether opposition leaders can tap into it to achieve their goal of forcing the president to resign.
Saakashvili himself said he has no plans to step down. "It's obvious the answer to this question is 'no,'" he said Friday. "It has always been 'no,' because that's how it is under the constitution."
At this moment, Saakashvili’s ouster seems a distant prospect. Crowds were well below the 150,000 that organizers promised. Over the weekend, the numbers dwindled to between 1,000 and 2,000, though on Monday, after an unexplained attack by vandals on the rally’s main stage, they ballooned again to more than 20,000. The 13 opposition organizations and parties that came together for the demonstrations remain a deeply divided group, and often appear unsure of the best strategy to adopt.
Regardless, movement leaders promise to carry out the protests indefinitely, even camping out in front of parliament, until Saakashvili steps down. While some, like Georgia’s former United Nations ambassador Irakli Alasania, are calling for dialogue with the government, others are assuming a more hardline stance.
“Saakashvili’s resignation — that’s the only demand we have,” said Nino Burjanadze, a fellow Rose Revolutionary and former parliament speaker, who split acrimoniously with the president last year. “This government can never be civilized.”
Even if the demonstrations end with the opposition vanquished and Saakashvili’s position intact, the fact remains that Georgia is a divided society, and Misha an unpopular president among a significant portion of the electorate — though not a majority. A recent survey by the International Republican Institute, a democracy-building organization affiliated with the U.S. Republican Party, the number of Georgians who believe the country is moving in the wrong direction has jumped considerably, to 59 percent, while many say their economic situation has become much worse.
Georgia, despite its diminutive size, is a land that punches far above its weight politically. Successive United States administrations have poured billions of dollars in aid, in recognition of the country’s democratic aspirations and firm pro-western stance.
Eduard Shevardnadze — the country’s previous leader and a darling in Washington’s corridors for helping end the Cold War as Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister — took the politically astute move of allowing a western oil pipeline to be built across its territory.
The Rose Revolution strengthened Tbilisi’s democratic and pro-western credentials. Then the August war against Russia, though its origins are still murky, further underlined the volatile, mountainous state’s key position. After the war, relations between the Kremlin and the west plummeted to their lowest point since the Cold War, though Barack Obama’s new administration has promised to mend bridges with Moscow.
Observers fear that if the standoff between protesters and the Georgian government persists, the opposition leaders will grasp for increasingly radical, and possibly violent, measures to force Misha’s hand. Others raise the prospect that Saakashvili will eventually employ massive force to end the deadlock, as was the case in November 2007, when police used truncheons and rubber bullets to clear out protestors. Both sides, it must be said, however, have studiously avoided any sharp confrontation, and law enforcement bodies have been practically invisible.
“We have learned from our mistakes,” said Giga Bokeria, a close presidential adviser. “There will be minimal police [presence], unless there is an open public attack.”
More dispatches from GlobalPost correspondent David L. Stern: