Still protesting in Georgia

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TBILISI, Georgia — As demonstrations in this ex-Soviet state approach their fourth week, the question arises: Are they a sign of strength or weakness in Georgia’s democracy? The answer — which holds implications for Moldova, which was also recently rocked by anti-government protests — is mixed. 

On the positive side, the sight of tens of thousands of former Soviets gathered to voice their demands in a reasonably organized manner, and with the expectation that their actions can bring about change, is heartening. 

Throughout most of the ex-Soviet sphere, with the exception perhaps of the Baltics and Ukraine, public protests are either suppressed, or looked upon as a futile endeavor. Cynicism and oppression reigns supreme in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Russia. Bully then to those Moldovans and Georgians for simply believing (still) in the democratic process. 

Georgia’s opposition says that the country is turning into a dictatorship and police state. This is a gross exaggeration. Their presence on the streets belies their own argument. The country remains a relatively open society, where issues are hotly debated among friends with the conviction that these discussions matter. Conversely, in Baku and Almaty people talk, but they know this is an empty exercise — they can chatter all they want, but decisions are made elsewhere (and usually by one person). 

On a recent Friday night in Tbilisi, a group of journalists, government advisers and political types were gathered at an upscale French restaurant. Sometime after midnight, President Mikheil Saakashvili walked in and took his place at the table. He was relaxed and jovial and seemed genuinely to welcome the conversation, sitting until the early hours of the morning. 

“Can you imagine any other leader doing this — Putin, for example?” asked one of the advisers. Although the president’s arrival seemed to have been orchestrated in part to elicit exactly this reaction, and to show how relaxed he was after demonstrators earlier in the day virtually called for his head, the adviser had a point. It is hard to imagine a leader of a similarly sized state — Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, say — trying this maneuver, or enjoying it so much. But this is a testament as much to the openness and closeness of Georgian political society, where everyone calls the president “Misha,” as to the strength of its democracy.

However, the demonstrations have also exposed key weaknesses in the Georgian body politic, on both sides of the protest barriers. The opposition for its part speaks only in the language of ultimatums and extreme demands: Saakashvili is a “tyrant” and “fascist” who must resign this very minute. There is no room for nuance, and even less for compromise (not to mention a plan for what they will do once Saakashvili resigns). A political system in which disputes are resolved only through extreme measures — as in Moldova — ultimately remains fragile. 

For a number of people in this Caucasus republic of 5 million, however, the opposition has a point. In many states the commander-in-chief would be forced to step down after suffering such a humiliating defeat as Georgia did against Russia last year. That defeat led to the conclusive loss of the breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saakashvili can be domineering and erratic, and has pursued policies that darken his democratic credentials. Presidential elections last year, which he won by a small margin, were marred by government intimidation and a biased media. Impeachment, furthermore, is impossible, since Parliament is under the control of the president’s party (through relatively fair elections, it should be noted). 

But the opposition’s extreme stance seems to be fueled as much by desperation as a sense of justice. And a majority of Georgians apparently distrust them for this. As unpopular as Saakashvili may be among portions of the population (and this ultimately is difficult to gauge), the call for his immediate ouster has failed to galvanize people. Driving yet another Georgian leader from office before his term has expired — as was the case with both of Saakashvili’s predecessors, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze — seems to many to be a bad idea. 

“The opposition are just idiots standing there,” said Givi Lapach, a farmer outside the capital. “We don't have time for this.” 

But on the other side of the barricades, the government also seems tone deaf at times. Saakashvili and his advisers want to have their cake and eat it too. On one hand, they point to the protests as evidence of their tolerance of criticism. But almost in the same breath they dismiss the protests as less than serious. They point to the smaller-than-expected numbers that turned out and say that the opposition is weak and not truly representative. They also accuse the Kremlin of being somehow behind the movement, further undermining its legitimacy. 

There is a risk, then, that widespread dissatisfaction in the country will go unheeded, and real reforms, like creating an independent judiciary, will wilt on the vine. The government also promised reforms after the country’s last spasm of public unrest in November 2007, but then failed to follow through with them. The fear is that the same will happen this time. If the government ignores the protests completely, it does so at its own peril, analysts say. Lack of support of the opposition is not the same as support for Saakashvili. 

“The aggravation remains under the surface,” said one longtime political observer, who asked to speak off the record.

More on political protests in the former Soviet Union:

Is Georgia teetering toward instability?

Can humor, and a masseuse, bring down a president?

Communists, then their opposition, rock Moldova