dimanche 1 juin 2008

Demonstrations in Tbilisi: the status quo camps out between the opposition and the government

Article published in caucaz.com, 16/11/2007 Issue
By Nicolas LANDRU in LeipzigTranslated by Lauren E. Smith

© Nicolas Landru, Demonstrations in Tbilisi

On 2 November 2007, an alliance of Georgian opposition forces assembled the largest number of demonstrators since the 2003 Rose Revolution in front of the capitol’s Parliament, with the intention of prolonging the movement until the government concedes to its demands. This great rally, announced at the beginning of October, which the organisers did not involuntarily bestow with similarities to the Revolution, the source of the current Government’s legitimacy, was still being held in front of Parliament 5 days after its commencement, even if the number of demonstrators had noticeably diminished. On the morning of 7 November, riot police forces dispersed the crowd with water cannons and tear gas. In the hours that followed, the demonstrations resumed elsewhere in Tbilisi, notably in Rike square, however riot police used force again in order to disperse them.

The largest demonstration since the Revolution

The government calculates that 25,000 people responded to the opposition leaders’ call to demonstrate in Tbilisi on 2 and 3 November 2007. However, the organisers report more than 100,000 demonstrators. Outside observers are saying 50,000 people. Regardless, this street gathering is the largest since the demonstration that brought Mikheil Saakashvili and the present government to power, even if the 2003 figures are incomparable to those of November.

Nevertheless, the opposition would like to draw its legitimacy from this state of facts to force the regime to yield to its demands. The highly media-covered preparation for the event – the television channel Imedi broadcasts the demonstration 24 hours a day – had for that matter done everything to make the event spectacular before it even took place.

While the event went off effectively, it seemed to have lost its momentum with the start of the weekend. However, according to observers, the televised speech by Irakli Okruashvili, former ally of the president who was arrested, released on bail and later repented in mid-October, incited an increase in attendance. On Tuesday afternoon, the organisers were talking about setting up a “city of tents” in front of the Georgian Parliament. The following morning, riot police forces dispersed the gathering, which then re-formed elsewhere.

The government’s attitude toughened noticeably following President Saakashvili’s televised speech as, up to that point, he had led the demonstration from a certain distance. While the president was downplaying the attacks against him by evoking the right to demonstrate in a democracy, he also hastened to denounce the opposition parties’ “politician technologies” which he described as “factories of lies”. The regime’s tone especially increased in the verbal attacks against the oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, who financed a part of the event and owns Imedi media, in which the opposition has a platform for expression. Insults are flowing between the opposition and the government, and they are lapsing profusely into the tendentious, from accusations of Nazism to anti-Semitic and anti-Armenian references.

After the gathering in front of Parliament was dispersed, the government stated that certain members of the opposition were engaged in crimes against the State. The minister of the Interior remarked that the opposition is collaborating with Russian counter-espionage services. The rhetoric moved up a notch on 7 November and, despite the call for the composure of a few personalities, including the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, it seems difficult to encourage a de-escalation, and the threats of the government are becoming more and more concrete.

The opposition’s four demands

The leaders of the demonstration, who have chanted their appeals in front of Parliament since 2 November, have 4 principal demands. The first is to push the parliamentary elections, provisioned by amendments to the constitution for the end of 2008, forward to the spring. It is up to the president to decide the exact date, although he has, for the moment, scheduled the parliamentary elections at the same time as the presidential elections, which extends the duration of the Parliament session. Saakashvili upheld his initial decision in his 4 November statement.

The second concerns the impartiality of the Central Electoral Commission. This type of demand was the spearhead of the Rose Revolution. The opposition relies precisely on the fact that, according to the Commission, the conditions of neutrality were not improved, given that the secretary of the Commission, Levan Tarkhnishvili, maintained close links with the government while he would have been expected to have no political affiliation. The evident falsification of ballots during the local elections is the major argument of the opposition to demand that the Commission include representatives of all political parties.

As their third point, the demonstrators want to reform legislative election on a majority basis into one ballot allowing individuals to be elected as deputies, and not, as the current legislation wants it, to the winning party, which obtains all of the seats for the won constituency. This voting system thus allows the most well-established party, to be specific the National Movement in power, to have an overwhelming majority in Parliament, which, according to the opposition, would not be the case if separate proportional representation was in effect.

Lastly, the leaders of the opposition demand the release of what they consider to be political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. The demand involves foremost the opposition leader Irakli Batiashvili, who, according to the Tbilisi Court sentence, would have provided “intellectual assistance” to the Svan warlord Emzar Kvitsiani. On Tuesday 6 November, the demonstrators reiterated that they would have confidence in entering into a dialogue with the government only if Batiashvili were released.

On Sunday 4 November, the most radical leaders demanded the resignation of Saakashvili, while he remained deaf to the demands and while the only dialogue started with the regime, through the President of Parliament Nino Burjanadze, remained futureless. A more largely affirmed political attack targets the power-holders, former members of the NGO “Liberty Institute”, Minister of the Interior Van Merabishvili and the head deputy Giga Bokeria. According to the opposition, they would monopolize the power around the president and would hold him hostage. For more than one year already, the group in power from the Liberty Institute is seen by the opposition as the author of an increased concentration of powers.

A conglomerate of oppositions

How much time will the union of opposition leaders, assembled in front of Parliament and united by their common demands, take? The question is posed all the more so since the movements united under the umbrella of demands are at the very least heterogeneous. Stemming from the most varied spectrums of the Georgian political scene, and united for the demonstration under the name the National Council of a United Movement, they include:

The Republican Party on the centre-right led by Davit Usupashvili; Zviad Dzidziguri’s Conservative Party; the far-right “Liberty” party led by Konstantine Gamsakhourdia; the populist far-left of Shalva Natelashvili (Labour Party); the independent party of Salome Zurabishvili, “Georgia’s Way”; the Abkhazian refugee party “Through Ourselves” led by Paata Davitaia; Kakha Shartava’s National Forum; the Movement for United Georgia, a new militarist party led by the former minister of Defense Irakli Okruashvili; and the “Georgian Troop”, also militarist, of Jondi Bagaturia.

In short, all the political tendencies that are not in power are united here, from the newest parties, created by Saakashvili’s ex-allies, to former Zviadist movements, to post-communists on the far-right to moderates. This opposition is united by the opportunity to contest the current regime. It is also strategic, but will the fact of being in opposition be sufficient to form a bloc that would last until the next legislative elections? The movement’s eclecticism generates its popular legitimacy, but also its political weakness.

There is also the support of millionaire and media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, who entered officially into politics in October. Patarkatsishvili offers the anti-establishment movement Imedi media and the government points to him for discrediting the movement. A true anti-government front, the movement does not allow experts to foresee that it can go beyond the demands voiced to the government with the support of the streets, or even to expect a “Great Coalition” for the 2008 elections.

However, if the status quo endures and the tone toughens again on the part of the government, Georgia could very well get bogged down in the political crisis, and the movement could form an electoral front. Wasn’t the front during the Rose Revolution, specifically the one that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power, just as eclectic? Is the subsequent elimination of others, united once the power was in place, not the opposition’s fundamental criticism? But would it still be necessary to avoid the violent confrontation, which 7 November noticeably approached.

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