mardi 19 mai 2009

April demonstrations in Georgia: neither revolution nor evolution

Opposition members set up tents in front of the presidential residence in Tbilisi. © RFE/RL

Nicolas LANDRU, translated by Christian Larson
Published in on May 16, 2009

Georgia’s political opposition announced April 9, a highly symbolic day of national mourning, as the starting point for a new round of popular mobilisation against President Mikhail Saakashvili’s regime. The avowed goal of a majority of these political forces was to rally in the streets in order to force out the president they consider illegitimate. Weakened by the loss of 2008’s presidential and parliamentary elections, and silent during the August 2008 war with Russia, the opposition parties kept their promise and have filled the streets for more than a week already. But the winds of change from the winter of 2007-2008 do not seem to be present. The government has changed its tone and appears to be leaning towards dialogue, a strategy that hardly suits the opposition movement which is experiencing difficulty in mobilising crowds in Tbilisi again.

During the severe political crisis which lasted from the November 2007 demonstrations to the June 2008 parliamentary elections which the opposition lost, the internal troubles which marked Georgia were relegated to the back burner due to the urgency of the August 2008 war with Russia. The later demarcated a pause in the clashes between a precarious opposition block and Mikhail Saakashvili’s regime, all opposition leaders having rallied in “national unity” behind the president during the conflict.

A difficult post-war situation for the opposition

The war poorly masked the seriously dysfunctional imbalance between the opposition and the majority, put into a bad state by both parties’ perpetually deaf dialogues, the use of radical methods and an about face on the road towards institutionalisation. The war did manage, however, to divert the public’s attention, as much in Georgia as in the rest of the world, from a period filled with preoccupying such as massive, long demonstrations, police repression, a state of emergency, an anticipated presidential election, questions about the legitimacy of the elections, instability and the reversibility of the opposition coalitions.

It wasn’t until the end of September 2008 that the opposition leaders raised their voices again, pointing this time at President Saakashvili’s responsibility for the advent of the war and Russia’s victory. But the wave of popular discontent on which the opposition surfed quickly dissipated following the shock of military confrontation. And the logic of the anti-Saakashvili parties was ruptured: the opposition nearly abandoned its electoral campaign demonstrations and its November 2007 themes of election falsification and civil rights violations by the authorities, key talking points in the pre-war opposition’s discourse.

It’s because the war was traumatic for the country. There are a number of consequent challenges: the humanitarian emergency stemming from the wave of refugees, the reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure and a reorientation towards an Abkhazia and South Ossetia now entirely cut off from Georgia. Combine that with the challenges of a severely battered army, a Russia that is more menacing that ever, and the fact that the global economic crisis has not spared Georgia, and the political environment is that much more tense.

The opposition has only slowly reconstituted its discourse against the regime. The recreation of an alliance composed of diverse members was difficult, as was the laying out of a new agenda. This new agenda hoped to make April 9, which commemorates the Red Army’s 1989 repression of peaceful protests, the starting point for a new popular anger in Tbilisi.

Short-lived mobilisation

After having stood by President Saakashvili’s side on April 9th to celebrate the memory of the 1989 repression’s twenty victims, according to numerous outside observers, opposition leaders assembled some 50,000 people in front of the Georgian parliament to call for Saakashvili’s resignation. This figure is approximately half the number of people who demonstrated in January 2008 following the president’s re-election. The demonstrators announced the launching of a movement which would end only with the resignation of the current president.

The next day, when the leaders decided to extend the demonstrations to different parts of the city, including near the presidential residence in the Avlabari neighbourhood, the number of demonstrators noticeably decreased. Some observers spoke of approximately 25,000 people. On April 11, mobilisation waned further, with some saying between 4,000 and 6,000 people were demonstrating in the streets of the capital. Despite announcing a break for the Orthodox Ram’s Sunday, opposition leaders spoke on the 13 of extending the movement throughout Georgia.

Although the movement focused on setting up some thirty tents around the presidential residence, as well as blockading the public television station and cutting off of an important road, several hundred activists continued to rally in the streets the weekend of Orthodox Easter.

In contrast, the leaders spoke more than ever of launching a campaign in the provinces, which are usually difficult to mobilize, not very politically active and tend to vote for the regime in power. After hesitating in the face of the April 17 and April 20 religious celebrations, the main leaders nonetheless declared their desire to continue the demonstrations in Tbilisi.

Elusive dialogue

During the week of demonstrations, the opposition denounced a handful of violent incidents, notably on the evening of April 11, when they say fifty people attacked the demonstrators’ headquarters, destroying mostly informational materials. On April 14, masked men beat three opposition activists on the edge of the camps around the presidential residence.

But apart from these outbursts between the government and the opposition, the authorities are content for the time to simply police the demonstrations. There are no indications as of yet of a possible escalation towards physical repression. The spectre of November 7, 2007, when demonstrators were violently disbanded by the security forces, is on everyone’s mind. The question lingers what changes these events may bring in terms of rhetoric and strategy; the number of demonstrators is hardly different from that of November 2007.

What comes next is all the more uncertain given that there has been no perceivable change in the relations between the opposition and the government. Over the past week now, the same group that has prevailed for two years has again reaffirmed itself. As a compromise the government has proposed changes to the electoral process for the mayor of Tbilissi, a political move which the opposition considers hollow. The opposition has invited the president to a confrontation of sorts, a televised debate, which the government has refused. The government has called for dialogue with the opposition, but the latter considers the offer to be unacceptable given April 11th’s se of violence. In arresting a Russian “provocateur”, the government claims to have revealed a plot orchestrated by Russia, using the rhetoric of treason to hurt the legitimacy of the political opposition. The story goes that the opposition insists on the Presidents’ definitive departure…

This vicious circle of no compromise or dialogue, fed by rhetoric that is turned back upon its promulgators, has reappeared in public life, in the media and in the streets, completely outside any democratic institutions. This appears to be the constant in government-opposition relations since the second year following the “Rose Revolution”. Not even a war on Georgian soil could alter the dynamic.

Another key question about the movement: Will the older opposition leaders such as Levan Gachechiladze and David Gamkrelidze manage to overcome their differences with the newer leaders such as Irakli Alasania and Nino Burdjanadze? Come what may, it is difficult to imagine that the April movement will manage to repeat the “Rose Revolution”, a scenario on which the opposition leaders are once again pinning their hopes. Most Georgians do not seem ready to head down that uncertain path. The country has not yet finished licking its wounds from August 2008, and the threat of a new Russian invasion seems for the time being to be the current regime’s best ally.

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