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Georgia: Was Saakashvili Right To Crack Down?

By Salome Asatiani and David Kakabadze --> What will be the long-term impact of the Georgian protests and crackdown? (AFP) On November 17, RFE/RL held a roundtable discussion focusing on recent developments in Georgia, where the government has called early elections and nominated a new prime minister in the wake of a violent crackdown on opposition protests. Participating in the discussion were Anne Applebaum, foreign affairs columnist for "The Washington Post," and Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, who specializes in the former Soviet republics. The discussion was moderated by the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, David Kakabadze, and RFE/RL correspondent Salome Asatiani.

RFE/RL: What do you think, after everything that happened on November 7 -- does Georgia still have a chance for a European future, a democratic future?

Anne Applebaum: Yes, absolutely! Georgia has a chance for a European and democratic future, and I think the interest that's been shown in Georgia -- and what's been happening in Georgia for the last few days -- is an indicator of that. The enormous amount of concern in Western capitals is an indicator of how much people have invested in Georgia, and how much people were hoping to see change in Georgia, and how much they hoped Georgia would eventually be a proper member of the West, a proper part of Europe. I don't think anyone thinks that there has been some kind of a fatal reversal that can never be changed, that anything that's happened ends anything. I think, on the contrary, people see this as a kind of growing pain, and they very much hope that Georgia will come out of it.

RFE/RL: Mr. Socor, what would you say about the prospect of Georgia's European future?

Vladimir Socor: I think Georgian democracy has successfully defended itself -- and is successfully defending itself -- from challenges that reflect an immaturity on the part of opposition groups, and a direct threat to the security and stability of the state from one single all-powerful oligarch [Badri Patarkatsishvili, a prominent opposition figure and financier], with possible support from outside. Any state, and especially a democratic state, is entitled to defend itself against subversion and against threats to the democratic order.

Western sympathizers of Georgia have an obligation to tell opposition parties that they are proceeding in an undemocratic way, that they are seeking to overturn a democratic order and a democratically elected government. Instead of catering to this opposition, and encouraging it to its mistaken ways, Westerners should mentor it. The sad reality is that Georgia does not have a viable, democratic opposition. I know most of these opposition leaders. I have been following their activities for many years, and they are not democrats -- most of them, with few exceptions. And, with respect to their political and financial leader, Badri Patarkatsishvili, this is a case in which one extremely rich, all-powerful oligarch -- perhaps too big for this small country -- is attempting to hijack democracy in Georgia.

RFE/RL: Ms. Applebaum, your recent article in "The Washington Post" conveyed a conviction that through forceful dispersal of the protest rallies and the imposition of the state of emergency, President [Mikheil] Saakashvili [inflicted] -- if not irreversible, as you just described -- then at least very [significant] damage not just to his country but to the American democracy promotion project in general. However, there are voices -- and Mr. Socor is one of those -- who defend Saakashvili's decision, even calling it a "brave" and "necessary" one. They say that at that moment, Georgia's very sovereignty -- its statehood -- was at stake, and statehood should come first, before democracy.

Applebaum: I would sort some of these things into different categories. If you had a large, violent demonstration that was marching on the presidential palace, then, of course, you are entitled to use tear gas and defend yourself. However, some of the moves that Mr. Saakashvili chose to use -- smashing up [Imedi, the main opposition TV channel], for example -- strike me as above and beyond what you would expect. Whatever happens, destroying the television station, wrecking the equipment, and taking all television off the air cannot be the right way to defend your state. The right way is to have more television stations, more sources of news, if you feel that one is becoming dominant. The right way can never be to remove the news, and to remove free access to information and the media.

That Georgia is in an extremely difficult position, I do not deny. That Russia is very interested in undermining Saakashvili, I would not deny either. That he faces challenges of the kind that most Western democratic leaders in Europe and the United States would never face is absolutely clear. There is military, there are financial attempts to undermine Saakashvili, coming from Russia, [and these] are extraordinary. Nevertheless, the way to fight them is not by removing the media; and the way to fight them is not by breaking up what appeared to have been, in fact, peaceful demonstrations.

Democracy and Stability

RFE/RL: Mr. Socor, how would you respond to this?

Socor: First, a general point -- there is no inherent tension between democracy and stability. We should never get into a situation when the two come into a conflict. It is Badri Patarkatsishvili, political groups that he is financing, and probably behind them in some way Russia. It is they who have an interest in creating a situation in which democracy and stability come into conflict. And, it seems to me that the government has balanced the two considerations in a very effective and democratic way.

The government tolerated, for several days, large-scale unlawful demonstrations without reacting. I was in Tbilisi during those days. I saw that the police did not carry riot gear, and the police were there in small numbers, with their hands in their pockets, in a rather benign mood. It all degenerated on the final day, when the diehard opposition elements, bereft by that stage of public support, tried a desperate move -- namely, to set up a permanent tent camp in front of parliament. This could never have been allowed, and I support the Georgian government's decision to clear the square. Although, admittedly, there were cases of excessive and indiscriminate use of force, and that needs to be investigated, and those responsible do need to be brought into account. There was no smashing of equipment at Imedi.

RFE/RL: Mr. Socor, may I interrupt you there -- it seems that smashing of equipment did take place at Imedi, there is evidence of that, there are pictures, one even published on RFE/RL's website.

Socor: I prefer to believe [the EU's special representative to the South Caucasus] Peter Semneby and the other Western diplomats. I understand the French ambassador was with him [when they visited Imedi], and they made a public statement after that. They are credible in my view.

RFE/RL: Yes, but there is one perhaps interesting detail -- Peter Semneby and the French ambassador had to wait for two days before they were allowed to go to Imedi's headquarters. ... Mr. Socor, would you say that the Georgian government has produced credible evidence that in this particular case Russia was really planning a coup, an overthrow of the government, and there, indeed, was a conspiracy?

Socor: I think this would be an oversimplification. Certainly we have no evidence, and it may well be an oversimplification to say that Russia was planning a coup.

RFE/RL: But that's what Mr. Saakashvili has said on numerous occasions, it seems.

Socor: No, he said it in a far more nuanced way. What we do know, and what the president and other officials have been saying, and what the government has been presenting as evidence, is that several opposition leaders -- I think maybe three or four of them -- were in contact with Russian intelligence. And so what we know, it may well be -- although we don't know for sure, we cannot know for sure -- it may well be that Russians jumped into this act only after the trouble had begun. That is also possible.

The role of oligarch and opposition figure Badri Patarkatsishvili remains unclear

But the bottom line is the following. The Russians want to overwhelm the Georgian government by staging a lot of hostile operations at the same time. In Abkhazia internally, internationally on the diplomatic front. And the Georgian government's manpower resources and other resources are being overwhelmed. The Russians are infinitely superior in that regard. They can handle all these operations against Georgia, at one and the same time. And we don't know what really is happening. Is Badri Patarkatsishvili acting on Russia's behalf? Is he their agent? Has he become their agent willingly or unwillingly? Is he being blackmailed? Does he have business interests in Russia? We don't know any of these things. And it would be crucial to know these things.

RFE/RL: But would you say that justifies forceful dispersal of tens of thousands of demonstrators that might be protesting to simply demand better social conditions?

Applebaum: Can I just jump in here? That there is Russian interference, there is no question about it. However, there are ways in which Mr. Saakashvili can behave that would win him enormous Western support and will also win him credit within his own country. Clearly, thousands of people on the streets are not all Russian-paid agents. I'm sure, there is no doubt, that some of them are. But that thousands and thousands of them are is very unlikely. And for him to dismiss them all as being that is not credible. And so he needs to act in ways that are credible, that will win him outside support and will draw positive, instead of negative, attention to his country, to his enormous achievements.

Socor: Just a minute. The thousands of people -- their numbers demonstrate that these particular opposition parties do not have a social base. The numbers plummeted dramatically. From the first day of mass attendance, the numbers kept going down and down. And by the final day, November 7, there were less than 1,000 people there.

RFE/RL: So why disperse them violently then?

Socor: Because of the declared goal to set up a permanent tent city in front of the parliament.

Recipe For Trouble

Applebaum: Can I interrupt? This happened in Hungary in the last couple of years. I won't go into detail here, but there was a similar wave of popular unrest, there were big demonstrations. And they set up a kind of tent city exactly like that, in front of the Hungarian parliament. And over years, day after day after day, it got smaller and smaller and became a kind of joke. Because of what you said -- because it did not have popular national support. And if that was the case with this movement, then that was the right way to deal with it. Set up your tent city, let it marginalize itself, and go home.

Socor: I agree with you, except that there was this attempt to set up a tent city that could not have been allowed. This is what started the trouble.

Applebaum: Let it set itself up. If it does not have popular support, it won't have any impact.

Socor: It was a recipe for trouble Georgia could not afford at this time.

Applebaum: Let it sit there! When it gets cold, they'll go home! If you don't have popular mass support for overthrowing the government, then people won't come out and sit there day in and day out. Just as the Hungarians did.

Socor: You cannot take that chance. Hungary is in a far safer situation.

Applebaum: I know that, I recognize that. But nevertheless, there are ways to deal with this kind of opposition that will work and will have a long-term effect of strengthening Saakashvili and his government, and there are [also] ways to deal with it that will create trouble further down the road. He has now done something that nobody thought was possible -- he has united the Georgian opposition against him. No one thought it could be done!

RFE/RL: Mr. Socor, you just said that Georgia could not afford trouble at this time…

Socor: It could not afford unlawful actions.

RFE/RL: That's right. But in the end, we might be facing a much worse situation than during those demonstrations. In order to become a normal democratic country, Georgia certainly needs Western support, as Ms. Applebaum has said. And the criticism Georgia has been getting from the West during these last weeks is very strong and almost unanimous. The international community is criticizing Georgia on its actions on November 7 and also afterward. Do you think this criticism is productive? Could it be sending a wrong message to Georgians -- and maybe also to Russia?

Applebaum: From what I know, the criticism has been helpful. We see now that Saakashvili has lifted the emergency declaration -- the state of emergency. I am told that he is beginning to react to it, and he is beginning to understand that you have to have television on the air and you can't just run soap operas all day. It may be having a positive effect. If in the long term he learns how to deal with his opposition, and learns how to help the development of a normal opposition, then I would say it would be positive. I don't think there's been excessive criticism of Georgia at all. In fact, most of the articles have commented on how successful Saakashvili has been in restoring the economic and political fortunes of Georgia. Most of them have acknowledged that he is under huge pressure from Russia. Most of them have acknowledged that he has achieved a great deal, and have simply mourned the fact that we thought he had moved beyond this kind of behavior. I don't think it has been excessive at all, and as far as I know, it's had a mostly positive reaction, and it's slowly having a good affect within Georgia. But you all may know better.

The Western Perspective

RFE/RL: Mr. Socor, would you like to add anything to this point?

Socor: Yes. First, I'm noticing with satisfaction that the tone of Western editorials is becoming more balanced. After the first article in "The Economist," which was completely unbalanced, yesterday's article is far more balanced. The reason being that the correspondent went to Tbilisi. Unfortunately, the editorial coverage of Georgia in Western newspapers is in the hands of nonspecialists, people who are not familiar with Georgia. All too often they oversimplify their reactions, and believe this to be a conflict between a government -- a democratic one, largely -- and a democratic opposition. This is not the case at all. The situation is infinitely more complex than Western editorialists -- who are not area specialists and don't personally know Georgia -- can grasp.

Saakashvili has largely escaped harsh criticism from the West

Now, the initial lashing out at Georgia and "Misha," was it productive? I don't think so. For what I know, the Georgian leadership is confident of its course -- namely, defending the democratic institutions from an undemocratic challenge. This is the bottom line. Now, we need an evolutionary development in Georgia also with regards to the opposition. The opposition needs mentoring. But these opposition leaders are beyond mentoring. Many of them are simple troublemakers, leftovers of the 1990s, and they have immeasurable personal ambitions. There is not yet a sufficiently rooted consciousness of statehood in Georgia...

RFE/RL: Mr. Socor, if I may stop you there. Most of the opposition that was protesting now were prominent players in movement that led toward the Rose Revolution. And in the first months after the regime change, they were standing there side by side with Mr. Saakashvili.

Socor: Some of them were. And here is a distinction. Indeed, some of the opposition activists are veterans of the Rose Revolution, it's true. The Rose Revolution was a work of a coalition of politicians and groups -- some of them pro-system, others antisystem. Many opposition leaders are by definition antisystem figures. Some of them took part in the Rose Revolution keeping with their personal, antisystem leanings. Then there was a split in their ranks. Saakashvili and the group around him -- who are impeccable democrats, in my view -- set out to build a state system and state institutions.

RFE/RL: Coming back to the recent events and the closure of Imedi. Some commentators have said that even though Imedi certainly was not an independent player and represented a side, its closure will deprive the Georgian media landscape of diversity. Would you agree that without Imedi, the Georgian media environment would be one-sided?

Socor: Without a station that reflects in a balanced way all the political points of view, of course. It does not need to be Imedi, to be called Imedi, does not need to be owned by Badri or by [Rupert] Murdoch. Of course, Georgia needs balanced, independent television. Of course, if -- and when -- Imedi reopens -- I think, I hope, as soon as possible -- it should have a competent, professional board of advisers to ensure its objectivity and integrity.

The Georgian 'Success Story'

RFE/RL: May we turn your attention to a bit more general aspect. There are people who have speculated that perhaps the reason why things went wrong in Georgia is that from the outset, starting with the Rose Revolution, Georgia was celebrated almost unanimously in the West -- especially in the U.S. -- as a "success story", and was also put under the spotlight somehow -- the West was watching, so to speak. So would it be possible to say that Georgian leaders were perhaps denied a chance to run a "normal" country with "normal" problems -- real problems and real challenges? Maybe the praise was too much, the pressure too big, and the young and inexperienced Georgian administration found all this too difficult to endure?

Applebaum: I think there's a lot to that. Absolutely, Georgia has been put upon a kind of pedestal -- in some ways correctly. The achievement of Georgia, as I say, is considered quite extraordinary, even to this day. I think part of the problem is the kind of Western attention, which was all focused on the personality and person of President Saakashvili. The aid all went directly to his office, the advisers all went directly to him, the Western focus was all on him and what he was doing. There was not much thought about, 'Shouldn't we also pay attention to who the opposition is? If we're talking about democracy, shouldn't we think a little bit about planning the next transition of power?' President Saakashvili is not going to be alive forever, he's not going to be popular forever. There has to be something to which he hands over, whenever it's going to be -- in two years, in four years, or 10 years. I think the attention was focused in a wrong way. The United States has a bad habit -- and this was as true in Ukraine and, actually, in Central Europe 10 years ago, as it is today in Georgia -- of kind of declaring victory. 'You've had your first democratic election, you're democrats -- goodbye!' That's not helping. That's not how things work.

RFE/RL: We have two more questions left if you allow. One is with regard to Georgia's NATO aspiration. You probably know that Georgia was hoping -- and possibly is still hoping -- to get the so-called Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest NATO summit next April. Do you think with the recent developments these prospects have decreased, or even vanished? How do you assess the situation in this regard at the moment?

Applebaum: Yeah, it hasn’t helped what’s happened in the last two weeks. It didn’t contribute positively to Georgia’s image as a possible member of NATO. However, there is still lot of time to reverse that and a lot would depend on what Mr. Saakashvili does in the next few days. I think, ultimately the decision about NATO membership depends on a lot of things that happen outside of Georgia, like: What exactly is the new French policy toward Russia? And is [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, who is more skeptical of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, really in charge of foreign policy, or is her foreign minister from the opposite party in charge? All kinds of things that really have nothing to do with Georgia and have more to do with Western policy toward Russia are probably more important. But I do think it would behoove Mr. Saakashvili to concentrate in the next couple of months on how to repair some of the damage that the actions of the last 10 days have done. If this is what he is still interested in.

RFE/RL: Mr. Socor, please.

Socor: Well, the ultimate decision about Georgia’s Membership Action Plan was going to be taken at the very last moment, on the eve of the summit, and almost certainly -- or certainly -- [was going to be] a political decision and the result of arrangements among the most influential countries within NATO. So, it was going to be a decision on a knife’s edge -- a very delicately balanced situation. Therefore, the latest events have dealt clearly a setback to Georgia’s aspirations. However, there is a great deal of sanctimoniousness in Europe and to some extent even in the United States about Georgia. Many Europeans will exploit the existing internal situation in Georgia as a pretext or an excuse for denying Georgia's Membership Action Plan. That's why it seems to me that it’s very important for the Georgian authorities to engage in a more effective outreach to Europeans.

It is necessary for Georgian representatives and not only government representatives but also NGO leaders to travel to West European capitals and explain what happens in Georgia -- not diplomats, but representatives of NGOs. You have wonderful NGO people, who are extremely eloquent spokesmen for democracy, highly respected and highly credible in Western Europe. I think they could do a good job of explaining to European public opinion, mass media and governments what’s really happening in Georgia. And this should be done well ahead of the April summit in Bucharest. It should be done immediately. In fact, it should be done during the upcoming presidential election campaign.

RFE/RL: The last question goes to Ms. Applebaum first. Your recent article in "The Washington Post" finished with what we all thought was an exceptionally poignant and very telling statement -- that the West will be better off building and supporting institutions and not the egos of individual leaders. However, on the other hand, if we’re talking specifically about Georgia, perhaps its cultural context would make this a bit difficult. First of all, because there is a clear need for a "leader" that almost the entire nation votes for, as it happened three times in the post-Soviet period. And, also, perhaps in transitional societies such as Georgia, it is precisely individuals that play an instrumental role in building of those institutions. What would you say about this?

Applebaum: I think it would have been possible and still is possible to support Mr. Saakashvili and at the same time think about what’s going to happen after Mr. Saakashvili, because the danger is that even though he’s clearly achieved a lot, he is not going to last forever. And there have to be means of transferring power which are accepted as legitimate by the society and which will produce somebody who is not either a Russian agent or incompetent, or somehow unacceptable. So, in a way we don’t have a choice. We might like to say, 'OK, let’s give all our money to Misha and let him be in charge.' But I just don’t think that’s a long-term plan. It just simply will not work over the duration. It will not last for 10 years. It will certainly not last for 20 years. And we want Georgia to be a member of the democratic Western community forever and not just for as long as Misha Saakashvili is in charge.

RFE/RL: Mr. Socor, what would you say Mr. Saakashvili has done for his legacy?

Socor: Yes, I basically agree with all of this. It’s a bit too early now to think about the post-Saakashvili government when Misha still has one presidential term to serve, assuming that he will be elected on January 5, which is highly likely. But, of course, the latest events perhaps jolted us into realizing that it’s necessary to make arrangements for a post-Saakashvili period after President Saakashvili’s second constitutional term will end.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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