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Georgia's Neighbors On Edge After Week Of Unrest

  • Claire Bigg --> Police fire tear gas in Tbilisi on November 7 (epa) November 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's highly eventful week has not gone unnoticed by its fellow post-Soviet neighbors.

For Russians and Armenians, Kyrgyz, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, the televised images of Tbilisi's antigovernment protests, police clampdowns, and last-minute political concessions have proved riveting viewing. They have also prompted questions about whether their own leaders will use, or misuse, the controversial example set by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili during the past seven days.

Saakashvili's decision on November 8 to call snap presidential polls sparked cries of triumph from the Georgian opposition. Opposition movements in nearby countries, by contrast, are focused on what came prior to Saakashvili’s election decision: riot police using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up already dwindling demonstrations, and the government's declaration of a state of emergency that banned all news broadcasts except those on state-controlled television.

The measures, which Saakashvili said helped crush a Russian-backed coup attempt, came as an unpleasant surprise to many who view the Georgian leader as the region's leading democrat. People living under more autocratic regimes in neighboring states fear the events set a dangerous precedent that could encourage the use of emergency rule as a powerful tool to crush dissent.

Opposition Concerns

Such concerns are vivid in Armenia, where authorities are bracing for a major antigovernment demonstration on November 16. The Armenian opposition held a 30,000-strong rally last month that made vocal calls for the resignation of President Robert Kocharian.

The meeting passed without violence, but opposition figures fear the crackdown in Georgia and the relatively mild criticism it has generated abroad may embolden local authorities to grab their own truncheons and declare a state of emergency.

"All this is expected in Armenia too," said Aram Karapetian, the leader of the New Times opposition party. "If elections are rigged, people will take to the street and then the same measures will be imposed here. What happened in Georgia is very important. What Saakashvili has done is unforgivable."

Armenian voters are due to elect a new president on February 19, and tensions are running high. Armenia already has a strong track record of summary arrests, clampdowns on independent media, and heavy-handed treatment of demonstrators. In April 2004, riot police used tear gas, water cannons, and truncheons to disperse a large antigovernment rally outside parliament. They raided the offices of opposition parties, smashing furniture and detaining political opponents.

A state of emergency and all the restrictions it entails could do considerably more damage to democracy in Armenia than in Georgia, which is further down the road than many post-Soviet countries in implementing democratic reforms.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Georgian emergency has also sent jitters through opposition circles. Like Georgia, the Central Asian state saw a change of regime following a pro-democracy revolution in 2005. In Kyrgyzstan, too, the new government has not balked at resorting to violence to crush political dissent, with the stated aim of protecting nascent democracy. Kyrgyz police in April used tear gas and water cannons to break up a rally contesting what protesters said were rigged elections.

Omurbek Abdyrakmanov, a member of the opposition Atameken (Fatherland) Socialist Party, says police violence and emergency measures will only serve to consolidate the opposition. "The opposition will never be tamed. Presidents think that forcible dispersal will convince the opposition to stop their activities. This will never happen. The opposition will only get stronger. This kind of treatment outrages people," he said.

Ukraine in the past has looked to Georgia as a partner as both countries sought to break free of Moscow's orbit. Viktor Yushchenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko, the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution, frequently invoked the spirit of Georgia's public uprising a year earlier, and referred to Saakashvili as a close ally. This week, however, neither has spoken publicly about the Georgia events. Instead, Kyiv quietly dispatched a Foreign Ministry representative to Tbilisi and joined the common call for peace and dialogue.

Russian Gloating?

Some governments, such as Russia's, have also been swift to spin the Georgian turmoil to their own advantage. Moscow has been at loggerheads with Saakashvili over his pledge to steer Georgia toward the West and restore control over two separatist regions backed by Moscow.

On November 7, as Georgian riot police stormed the small crowds remaining outside parliament, Russia saw an occasion to strike back. The Russian Foreign Ministry charged Saakashvili's government with "mass violations of human rights and democratic freedoms" -- an accusation that raised eyebrows in view of Moscow's own use of violence when handling disgruntled citizens. Russia's state-owned media joined in the finger-pointing, branding Saakashvili a "dictator" and denouncing a bloodthirsty "Georgian junta."

Throughout the day, Russia's state-run television channels broadcast a shrewd juxtaposition of footage contrasting the unrest in Georgia with a World War II military parade taking place the same day on Moscow's Red Square. The images sent a powerful message to Russian citizens: pro-Western revolutions bring only chaos.

Pro-government forces in authoritarian Belarus also took a stab at discrediting Georgia's leadership. "Georgia's leadership not only lost sight of democratic values, but it also grew very enamored of power," said Syarhey Haidukevich, the leader of the Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party close to the government. "This disease afflicts many. Power is so seductive that one will do almost anything to retain it. That's a very big mistake. I think the situation will grow even more tense."

(RFE/RL's Armenian, Kyrgyz, Ukrainian, and Belarusian services contributed to this report.)

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​