Accessibility links

(Un)Civil Societies: December 5, 2007

Iran: Women Reject The 'Little Miseries'

By Farangis Najibullah

Jelveh Javaheri is the most recent women's rights activist to be jailed

Of the "little miseries" of a woman's life in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Gisoo knows all too much.

As a college student some 20 years ago, Gisoo briefly fell in love -- and got married. Yet there was no honeymoon. Shortly after the wedding, her husband made her quit studying and stay home. Ever since, he has made virtually every important decision in her life. Her husband even moved the family out of her native Tehran without consulting Gisoo. Now, she would like nothing more than a divorce -- but the price would be high.

According to Iranian law, if a woman initiates a divorce, she loses her right to a share of the family's property. She would also lose access to her kids, because fathers get custody of all children over the age of 7. In short, Gisoo would be left virtually homeless -- with no money, no kids, and no decent job, given her interrupted studies.

Now, women's activists from across Iran are rallying to defend women like Gisoo, who are the victims of daily abuses of their human rights. But in perhaps a sign of the challenge that their drive, the One Million Signatures Campaign, represents to Tehran's clerical regime, authorities have cracked down hard on the grassroots movement, detaining scores of its activists in recent weeks and months and accusing them of endangering national security.

Campaign To End Discrimination

Members of the signature campaign, which started in August 2006, say they want to change what they call inequitable laws -- such as polygamy, unequal legal compensation for men and women, and different ages of criminal responsibility for boys and girls (15 for boys, 9 for girls). Their goal is to present a petition with 1 million signatures urging parliament to change such laws.

Jelveh Javaheri, a 30-year-old Internet journalist, recently became the fourth activist of the movement to be arrested and jailed since October. On December 1, the Revolutionary Court in Tehran charged her with inciting public opinion, propaganda against the state, and the publication of false information on websites. She's being held at Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

Another member of the campaign, Maryam Hosseinkhah, was sent to Evin in November on similar charges and is awaiting trial, while Delaram Ali was sentenced earlier in the month to a prison term and flogging. The authorities requested the equivalent of $105,000 in bail for Hosseinkhah's release -- a sum her family says it cannot afford.

Since its start, criminal cases have now been slapped on a total of some 40 campaign members.

And yet, the movement insists it is nonpolitical. Speaking to RFE/RL from Tehran, Khadija Moqaddam, a member, says the group merely seeks to promote equal rights for women. "It's a campaign that started a year and a half ago to change discriminatory laws against women," Moqaddam says. "Its activities include talking to people directly to broaden their general knowledge about the issue. We also are trying to collect 1 million signatures and pass them on to the parliament, and ask the parliament to change the discriminatory laws."

The campaigners say Iranian women are treated like "half-persons" under Islamic laws that first surfaced some 1,400 years ago. Still, campaigners say they are aware their counterparts in other Islamic societies, such as Saudi Arabia, probably face even worse discrimination.

Demonstrations by women's activists have been broken up quickly by police (

Although women in Iran are required to follow an Islamic dress code, they have the right to work and vote, and participate in the country's political life. With some dress restrictions, Iranian women are able to take part in domestic and international sports competitions. And, unlike places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran does not bar women from driving cars by themselves.

However, women's rights activist Raha Askarizadeh says there are still many laws that restrict rights and freedom. "Iranian women have no right to divorce," Askarizadeh told RFE/RL from Tehran. "If they marry a foreigner, they lose their Iranian citizenship. Their right to inheritance is smaller than their brothers'. When her husband dies, the wife gets only one-eighth of his property."

Although Iranian officials have not officially criticized the campaign, its members came under pressure from authorities almost immediately after the movement was set up. At least 33 women -- with Javaheri and Hussienkhah among them -- were arrested in March for taking part in a peaceful protest. The women were eventually released.

Nationwide Crackdown

In August, a court in Tehran sentenced two young female members of the campaign, Nasim Sarabandi and Fatemeh Dehdashti, to suspended prison terms. They were also found guilty of acting against the state by "spreading propaganda."

In October, Ronak Safarzadeh was reportedly arrested at her home in Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province and is being held in a detention center at the local office of the Intelligence and Security Ministry. Shortly afterwards, in early November, the same office arrested another women's rights activist, 21-year-old Hana Abdi.

Both women are being held without formal charges and they have reportedly been denied access to a defense lawyer. Their families claim they have no information about Safarzadeh or Abdi's whereabouts.

The arrests have attracted international criticism and condemnation. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has called for an immediate release of the arrested women. And the European Parliament has strongly condemned the "dramatic increase in the repression of women" in Iran.

But Iranian women activists say they are concerned that the recent arrests are just the beginning of a wider crackdown on women, and that they will be followed with more arrests and convictions.

"With 10 or even 100 such arrests, Iranian authorities cannot silence those who fight for the most basic social rights," women's rights leader Khadija Muqadam told RFE/RL from Tehran. "That's because there are millions of women and men in Iran who share the same values as the arrested members of the One Million Signatures Campaign."

Kazakhstan To Assume OSCE Chairmanship In 2010

By Bruce Pannier

U.S. Undersecretary Burns allowed for some compromise in Madrid

MADRID, December 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan will become the first ex-Soviet state to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), it was announced here at the close of the organization's annual ministerial meeting.

The oil-rich Central Asian state will occupy the chair in 2010 -- one year later than it had sought, OSCE spokeswoman Virginie Coulloudon told RFE/RL just after the two-day summit's final press conference on November 30.

The United States reportedly gave its backing after securing a Kazakh "pledge" that Astana would "protect" the OSCE's election-monitoring body, whose role Russia had proposed to alter.

Contentious Image Boost

Astana had considered it symbolically important that Kazakhstan be the first of the former Soviet republics to lead the 56-country organization. The Kazakh government has for years told its people that holding the OSCE chairmanship would show that the international community was taking notice of Kazakhstan's growing importance in the world community.

Critics pointed to the contradiction between Kazakhstan's weak human rights record and the OSCE's stated goals to promote democracy and human rights.

The OSCE's election-monitoring arm, the Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), monitored Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections in August and acknowledged that the country had made progress, but said a number of international standards went unmet.

Russia, meanwhile, solidly backed Kazakhstan's bid for the OSCE chairmanship. Speaking in Madrid on November 30, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chided detractors.

"Unfortunately, during the several years that have preceded today's meeting, there were absolutely unacceptable and unseemly maneuvers concerning this bid aimed at creating conditions on the right of a specific country -- an equal member of the OSCE -- to chair this organization by making demands on its internal and external policies," Lavrov said.

Hot-Button Topics

Russia and the United States came into the summit with sharply different views on a number of issues, most pertaining to Moscow's efforts to reorient the OSCE and its agencies toward security issues and away from the democracy agenda.

In Madrid, their differences were on display in the cool response Washington gave to Moscow's proposal -- backed by Kazakhstan and five other CIS countries -- to limit to 50 the number of ODIHR monitors sent to cover any future election and to put monitoring teams under the control of participating states.

"The United States will protect ODIHR," U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said on November 30. "We will oppose the Russian proposal, which would weaken and perhaps even cripple ODIHR. We will not support any compromise proposal that would be negative or problematic or damaging to ODIHR."

The issue was clearly in the spotlight after the OSCE earlier this cancelled its mission to observe Russia's December 2 parliamentary elections because Moscow had repeatedly denied visa requests to ODIHR observers. Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently accused the United States of being behind the OSCE's decision to pull out -- an allegation strongly denied by U.S. officials.

Russian officials, meanwhile, denied that they were attempting to undermine ODIHR. "I think that no one in the OSCE, including the Russian Federation, intends to weaken the mandate of ODIHR," Lavrov said on November 30. "This mandate, anyway, is weak -- totally vague -- and we want to strengthen it, and we are going to work on that."

ODIHR head Christian Strohal countered that opinion during an interview with RFE/RL on the sidelines of the summit. "We have a mandate for a long-term observation, and we try to fulfill this mandate as professionally and as effectively as we can," Strohal said. "We also appreciate the fact that we are joined in many elections which we observe by the parliamentarians from the Parliamentary Assembly [of the OSCE], who bring the particular expertise of politicians, parliamentarians who bring the particular expertise of politicians, parliamentarians."

Compromised Future?

In the end, compromise reportedly led to Kazakhstan being chosen to head the OSCE in 2010 and agreement on who would lead the organization through 2011.

Greece was chosen as chair in 2009, and Lithuania in 2011. Finland had already been set take over the chairmanship from Spain in 2008.

In closing out the summit, OSCE Chairman in Office Miguel Angel Moratinos said the developments were a sign of the stability of the organization.

But the jawboning that dominated much of the Madrid meeting could bolster perceptions that the most influential of the organization's participating states are moving along sharply different trajectories.

Russia: Putin's Kremlin Searches For Legitimacy

By Robert Coalson

Many participants at opposition Marches of Dissent across Russia were detained on November 24-25

November 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Although the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) party is, at best, a long shot to win any seats in the next State Duma, the party has been the target of intense harassment from officials across the country since campaigning began last month. Deputy party leader Leonid Grozman told "Vedomosti" recently the Kremlin's attention means that support for the party is higher than opinion polls indicate.

In short, politics in Russia have reached the point where the only way for parties to gauge their popularity is by measuring the lengths to which the Kremlin will go to suppress them. This is one vivid example of the way in which the country's political system has been deformed by the Kremlin's long-standing insistence on managing every aspect of acquiring and maintaining power. The macro-level contours of that manipulation -- controlling the media, introducing antidemocratic election laws (including the elimination of elections for the heads of regional administrations), virtually eliminating public referendums, introducing strict limitations on political parties -- have been well documented.

Increasing Heavy-Handedness

But the extent of managed democracy in Russia goes much deeper. For example, when the parties contesting the December 2 Duma elections were formulating their list of candidates earlier this year, there was strong evidence that the presidential administration was exercising strong influence, even among parties that are usually viewed as independent. Key supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party were either lured or intimidated away from participation. The SPS initially floated the names of youth activist Maria Gaidar, former Open Russia head Irina Yasina, and outspoken independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov as possible national-list candidates. But when the dust settled, the choice fell on little-known literature professor Marietta Chudakova, who has since proceeded to play almost no visible role in the campaign.

The SPS "must act within the framework created by the Kremlin," Ryzhkov told RFE/RL at the time. "As far as I can tell, the Kremlin has no desire to allow representatives of the real opposition to participate in the upcoming elections." Ryzhkov intimated that one of the Kremlin's control mechanisms lies in its stranglehold over the media. "There is an absolutely concrete list of names of people who cannot be shown on television," Ryzhkov said. Selecting one of these people to figure on a party's national list of candidates would be tantamount to choosing a total media blackout. Of course, when "opposition" parties fail to include serious politicians like Ryzhkov in their ranks, those politicians become further marginalized in the public mind.

As the December 2 elections draw nearer, the administration's tactics intended to keep the process to the script have become more heavy-handed. Opposition parties and even the Central Election Commission have noticed a national trend in which police are taking a highly proactive role in the campaign, acting on purported election-law violations even before local election officials have a chance to weigh in on them. "Earlier, election commissions first reacted to violations and then the police, if necessary, became involved," an unnamed member of the Central Election Commission told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" this month. Opposition activists have been questioned in their homes and campaign materials have been impounded on pretexts from drug charges to accusations of hidden advertising. Opposition demonstrations -- as opposed to pro-Kremlin rallies -- have been severely restricted by municipal authorities in Moscow and other cities, and police have been willing to use force to keep things under control.

As the implementation of the Kremlin's political-transition plan devolves from the presidential administration -- and its election-meister, deputy administration head Vladislav Surkov -- to regional and local administrations, such tactics are likely to become more brutal. Local officials, after all, understand that their political futures do not depend on what voters think of them, but on how well they demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin and their devotion to President Vladimir Putin's course. And they will stop at little in their competition with one another to demonstrate what capable "managers" they are. The slaying of Yabloko activist Farid Babayev in Daghestan this week following his criticism of the republican administration's manipulation of the election campaign may not be the last such tragedy before the vote.

Suppressing The People's Will

There is little doubt that the managed political system that has been installed in Russia will produce -- or be seen to produce -- exactly the result the presidential administration wants. If anything, the Kremlin could be compelled to falsify the results of the pro-Putin juggernaut Unified Russia downward to compensate for the unrealistically Soviet-style results many regional administrations are likely to come up with on election day.

But that system cannot produce the result that the Kremlin really needs -- legitimacy. The December 2 landslide will not be derived from popular support for Putin or Unified Russia. It will be the product of a dirty combination of undemocratic practices, blatant fear-mongering, the manipulation of public cynicism, and the total elimination of competition. This environment -- "the framework created by the Kremlin," to use Ryzhkov's phrase -- is designed down to the last detail to prevent the expression of the public's will rather than to manifest it.

And, despite the constrained environment of political information and expression, the Russian public broadly understands this. An RFE/RL poll taken last month found that two-thirds of respondents believe the elections are not being conducted honestly, and nearly half are sure the results of the election will be determined by Putin or his administration. Just over 15 percent of respondents said the elections will represent the will of the Russian people.

The presidential administration has made a lot of political capital by spreading the fear of an Orange Revolution-style uprising, by creating the impression the country is surrounded by enemies who want to sink the country into chaos, and by driving home the idea that unity is strength and pluralism is weakness. However, the Kremlin's analysts must be aware that a system based on the semblance of a democratic process is actually fundamentally unstable. The current "framework" allows no room for dissent, for creative criticism, for public influence over political choices -- and that is an untenable situation. The framework must be shifted -- either in the direction of increased democracy or toward undisguised totalitarianism. And given the background of the chekisty surrounding Putin and the policies they have consistently implemented in eight years of power, it seems more than unlikely the shift will be toward democracy.

Colored Revolutions: High Hopes And Broken Promises

By Salome Asatiani

Mikheil Saakahsvili (left) and Viktor Yushchenko -- whose revolution did better?

November 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Rose and Orange revolutions ushered in a wave of optimism that similar "colored revolutions" would soon spread Western-style democracy throughout the Soviet Union.

But as anniversaries of the events in Georgia and Ukraine approach, high hopes and great expectations have been replaced with apprehension.

Georgia became a regional trendsetter in November 2003, when the popular resistance that followed rigged parliamentary elections transformed into the Rose Revolution that spelled the downfall of the ruling regime.

The movement promised a break with past practices of corruption and kleptocracy, to be replaced with democratic governance and improved social conditions. And the charismatic face of the opposition, Mikheil Saakashvili, led the charge.

"We need new blood to come into politics in Georgia to replace the scumbags and corrupt deputies, ministers, and members of various parties who don't care about the people," the soon-to-be president said.

The revolution reached its peak with the opposition's seizure of the parliament building, and on November 23, 2003, President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned, prompting a massive celebration in Tbilisi.

One year later, it was Ukraine's turn, and once again flawed elections served as the stimulus.

Tens of thousands of Orange-clad Viktor Yushchenko supporters took to the streets on November 22, 2004, when it became apparent that presidential elections held the day before had been skewed in favor of the "blue" camp's candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.

As a result of the outcry, a new vote was ordered for late December, and Yushchenko emerged as the winner.

Yushchenko touted the Orange victory as the "people's choice," and promised to lead Ukraine in a new and democratic direction.

"The falsification by the Central Election Commission only postponed the time of recognition of the real choice of the people," he said during his January 23 inauguration ceremony. "This choice was proclaimed today in parliament and I took an oath on the Bible."

With their revolutions, two countries that shared a similar Soviet past and proximity to Russia appeared to start a new chapter. Saakashvili and Yushchenko vowed to spur development and democratization of their respective countries, and promoted integration with trans-Atlantic structures.

The two leaders enjoyed enthusiastic moral support from the United States, which touted the developments in Georgia and Ukraine as the advancement of democracy.

In early 2005, Saakashvili and Yushchenko were even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by influential U.S. Senators John McCain and Hilary Clinton. "In leading freedom movements in their respective countries," the senators' letter to the Nobel Institute read, the two presidents "have won popular support for the universal values of democracy, individual liberty, and civil rights."

Saakashvili and Yushchenko established a strong personal bond as well, the beginnings of which could be seen during the Georgian president's address to the Ukrainian people on November 23, 2004, during the peak of the Orange Revolution. "Dear Ukrainians, dear brothers and sisters," Saakashvili said in Ukrainian. "I speak to you on this holy St. George's Day. I wish you success, peace and calm, justice and victory."

'Who Has Done Better?'

But today, most analysts agree that Georgia and Ukraine have taken quite different postrevolutionary paths.

While Ukraine is widely seen as having more success in establishing democratic procedures of governance, Georgia is considered to be better off in terms of carrying out structural and economic reforms. The citizens of both countries, meanwhile, are waiting for promises of prosperity to come true.

"Who has done better, who has done worse? The Ukrainian achievements never looked as good as Georgian ones, but I wonder if the Ukrainian achievements are actually rather more sustainable," says Nicholas Redman, an Eastern Europe analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Meanwhile, both countries have experienced political crises at home.

Georgia was criticized for the heavy-handed crackdown on opposition protests on November 7 (epa)

In Ukraine, disagreements emerged between the main voices of the Orange Revolution -- Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko -- and ended with Yushchenko dismissing Tymoshenko as prime minister. That, combined with the continued rivalry with Yanukovych, resulted in political stalemate.

Yanukovych, enjoying the support of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, emerged as prime minister. And only recently, following September's parliamentary elections, has the Orange camp regrouped enough to consider the possibility of a new Orange coalition.

In Georgia, Saakashvili's government has been accused by the opposition of consolidating power, tightening control over the media, and failing to push through much-needed judicial reforms.

Such criticisms resulted in the recent staging of massive opposition rallies throughout the country -- and came to a head in Tbilisi when Saakashvili's administration chose to forcefully disperse opposition protesters just as their numbers seemed to be on the wane.

The use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannon to suppress the movement led to a state of emergency that lasted nine days. The country has not recovered from the acute crisis, and is now awaiting a presidential election that Saakashvili moved up from the fall of 2008 to January 5 in an attempt to appease the opposition.

Weak, Divided As A Strength

For many analysts, such as Ukrainian political commentator Ivan Lozovy, the problems Georgia and Ukraine have encountered following their revolutions are largely due to Saakashvili's and Yushchenko's dissimilar personal characteristics, and divergent ways of governing.

"In the case of Yushchenko -- passivity and weakness," Lozovy says. "In the case of Saakashvili -- strong-headedness and, I would say, an overtly great desire to see things done right away, and only his way."

He adds that while Ukraine's "soft" leadership may have contributed to the lack of reforms there, Georgia's "strong-handed" leadership has presented the problem of trying to make too much progress too quickly.

Georgia's and Ukraine's significantly divergent social, economic, and cultural landscapes have also played a crucial role in the way that the two countries have come to govern themselves.

Ukraine's regional diversity, the split between the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west, is key to understanding its political culture. This difference was well reflected in the initial mandate the two leaders received -- Yushchenko came to power with approximately 52 percent of the vote, winning a slim eight-percentage-point majority over his eastern-backed rival Yanukovych. Saakashvili, by contrast, won an overwhelming victory, with 96 percent of the vote.

Are the political clashes of Tymoshenko (left) and Yanukovych actually a sign of democratic progress in Ukraine? (epa file photo)

Some consider the Ukrainian east-west divide to the be a source of internal weakness. But others, such as Georgian political commentator Bakur Kvashilava, argue that it holds the benefit of laying the groundwork for the establishment of democratic principles and procedures.

"Such regional disagreements complicate governance of a country, of course," Kvashilava says. "But long-term, as history and other examples teach us, if two opposing sides can agree on one fundamental issue -- that Ukraine must be integral and undivided, for instance -- then chances are they will also agree on a second fundamental issue, that the only correct path for coming to power is the democratic one -- elections, referendums."

There has been a clear effort to solve all political crises -- no matter how acute -- through negotiation and accommodation in post-Orange Revolution Ukraine. For Kvashilava, this indicates that democratic procedures are finally taking root in the country's political culture, creating a telling contrast with Georgia.

"In Georgia, as the recent events demonstrated, it was absolutely legitimate and acceptable for the population, as well as some representatives of the opposition, to call for the president's resignation, [the opposition's] assumption of power, 'saving the people' and so on," Kvashilava says. "The majority of protesters applauded these slogans -- and this indicates that democracy, as the only way of life, in Georgia has not been established as firmly as in Ukraine."

Ukraine's regional and linguistic diversity has also served as a basis for less radical shifts in foreign policy. While in Georgia most political forces -- and certainly the one in power -- are openly pro-Western and have expressed the desire to distance Georgia from Russia's influence, Ukrainian politicians have been more restrained and cautious.

"The checks and balances that exist in Ukraine, because of various divisions within the country, meant the Ukrainian government, while it was always very keen on close relationship with NATO, was never able to go flat out and seek NATO membership, or the initial Membership Action Plan," Redman of the Economist Intelligence Unit explains. "Whereas Saakashvili has had a very free hand in Georgia, and was able to do that. So he was more out-and-out pro-Western, pro-NATO, than the Ukrainians ever managed."

But that approach has come back to bite Georgia in another sense, as it served to strain further its already deteriorating relationship with Russia and has fueled aggressive rhetoric by Russian politicians who can't afford to show the same hostility to Ukraine, lest they risk alienating Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

Georgia and Ukraine still have much work to do to fulfill the many promises made during the Rose and Orange revolutions. The initial euphoria has long since subsided and, as Redman puts it, it has become clear that the two countries' prospects are far from immune to unexpected twists.

"Georgia is more of an open canvas, where a leader can do more -- but can also drag things in a fairly disastrous direction," Redman says. "Whereas any Ukrainian leader is still rather hampered, and that limits the capacity for doing damage -- but it also limits the capacity to make positive change."

Georgia: The End Of Rosy Democratic Outlook?

By Salome Asatiani

Police dispersing demonstrators in Tbilisi today

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.