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Georgia: The End Of Rosy Democratic Outlook?

  • Salome Asatiani --> Police dispersing demonstrators in Tbilisi today (epa) November 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) --  Few predicted the actions taken by the Georgian authorities against antigovernment protesters today. But as a result, the country's already turbulent political path took a decisive turn for the worse.

In the course of a single day, the resort to violence by police and protesters alike led to talk of Russian interference, traitorous opposition leaders, the end of democracy in Georgia, and finally, a state of emergency in the capital.

"The president has issued a special decree declaring a state of emergency, only in Tbilisi. Within 48 hours, according to the constitution, the decree will be submitted to parliament for approval,” announced Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli. “Temporary restrictions are placed upon demonstrations and manifestations, naturally, as well as on calls for riots, violence, and the violent overthrow of the government expressed in the media."

Just hours prior to the government’s announcement, leading opposition television channel Imedi TV was shut down.

Giorgi Targamadze, a leading Imedi TV journalist, addressed viewers as special-forces troops disrupted a live news broadcast.

Targamadze: "I really hope, really do hope that they will not attack people physically. But there is loud noise at [the television station] and something terrible is happening. So far we are still on the air, but the guests have arrived. Goodbye, and don't worry. Everything will be all right."

Unidentified voice: "Turn it off!"

Targamadze: "It's off. We are not on the air anymore."

The channel was founded by one of the country’s richest men, Badri Patarkatsishvili, who is seen as the money behind the opposition movement.

The tycoon recently handed his managerial powers of Imedi media holding over to the company’s co-owner, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Minutes after Imedi TV began broadcasting white noise to its nationwide audience, a local Tbilisi station, Kavkasia, reportedly went off the air.

Return To Confrontation

As they entered their sixth day, the strength of antigovernment rallies in the Georgian capital appeared to be on the wane. From a peak of as many as 70,000 participants on the first day of the Tbilisi rallies, on November 2, only a hundred or so remained on the city's main thoroughfare this morning.

One of the main figures of the opposition, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, had been largely discredited, despite renewing his accusations of murder and corruption against President Mikheil Saakashvili. Talk of a possible compromise between the presidential administration and the opposition was on the rise.

Everything changed after the authorities resorted to force to disperse the last of the protesters set up in front of the Georgian parliament building. Within hours, protesters had returned to the scene en masse, setting the stage for the ensuing battles with police.

Throughout the day, Georgian television aired footage of riot police swinging batons, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets as they tried to disperse rock-throwing protesters throughout the capital.

Police "were chasing Georgia's citizens into the streets surrounding Rustaveli Avenue, they were getting into hotels, private homes, and were beating people," Georgia's ombudsman, Sozar Subari, said. "I saw it with my own eyes, and stopped policemen from entering the State Opera, where citizens were expressing their discontent. This was an absolute abuse of power, and I can freely say that today from a beacon of democracy Georgia turned into a country where human rights are not protected even on an elementary level."

Live television coverage was juxtaposed with comments from the authorities justifying the police action on the basis that the rallies were unsanctioned and were interfering with public life. The violence was portrayed as a "normal," albeit "ugly" aspect of democracy.

Blaming Moscow

Addressing the nation in a televised address after night fell on the capital, President Saakashvili called for calm and said Georgia's sovereignty was at stake. He also placed blame for the turmoil clearly on Russia, whose relations with Georgia have deteriorated sharply in the past year.

"For the last several months, we kept hearing that mass riots were inevitable in Georgia by the fall," Saakashvili said. "This was coming from all intelligence channels that we have at our disposal. This was coming from foreign capitals, where we also have friends who were giving us this information. I was hearing that an alternative government had already been set up in Moscow, and that by the end of the year, Saakashvili and his government were going to be overthrown in Georgia. I have been hearing this for the last six or seven months. I had no right to disregard it."

Earlier in the day, during the peak of the violence, the Interior Ministry released audio and videotapes that purportedly documented conversations dating back to 2005 that some leading opposition leaders had had with alleged Russian foreign-intelligence agents.

"I will write a document about the political situation, our party, our history, and our political means, and will then send it to you" a voice identified as that of Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili can be heard saying in one conversation.

In another conversation with the same people, a voice claimed to be that of Levan Berdzenishvi, a leader of the Republican Party, is heard discussing Georgia's plans to leave the CIS.

The material, some concerning ongoing developments and some dating back to 2005, had been edited to include captions and headings -- leading to speculation that it had been prepared well in advance and held for release when it could decisively discredit the opposition.

Representatives of the ruling party were ready with their condemnation. Givi Targamadze, chairman of the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, issued an emotional statement, saying those in the opposition who were rallying under the banner of patriotism were, in fact, "traitors who collaborated with Russian secret services."

Democratic Reaction?

Commentators outside the government had similar reactions to the release of the tapes. Giga Zedania, a philosopher and political commentator, said that in light of the threat to Georgia's statehood, the use of force to break up the antigovernment rallies was a justified, albeit undesirable, action.

"We have to differentiate between democracy and statehood," Zedania said. "We are not talking about democracy now -- we are talking about a state, as such. The problem lies in the following: There are people who put the sovereignty of this state under threat. Democracy has nothing to do with this. This is a question of whether we will be a sovereign country, or will continue to be just one of the provinces of Russia, as was the case for 200 years."

Saakashvili himself, speaking as "a leader of this country's young democracy," vowed to protect the right of the people to make democratic choices, and to protect free speech "while creating an environment for citizens to achieve political self-realization."

The protection of such principles, he told Georgians, sometimes requires a firm hand against those who seek to aggressively undermine the growth of democracy.

"Georgian police and special forces that operated in the center of Tbilisi -- and I want to underline this -- used all those means that are used by police forces in England, France, Finland, Switzerland, Estonia, all those democratic countries in which, on the one hand, the police try to cause as little harm as possible even against the most aggressive participant of a rally or even a radical group, and, on the other hand, tries to protect public order and prevent mass riots and conflicts between various groups," Saakashvili said.

In the wake of the chaos that reigned today, Saakashvili's young administration will face its biggest test to date under a state of emergency. The world will be watching to see if Georgia lives up to its democratic billing.