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One Year After Crackdown, Georgian Opposition Remains Angry -- But Weak

  • Liz Fuller

An opposition supporter falls down as police dispersed opposition protesters in last year's violence

An opposition supporter falls down as police dispersed opposition protesters in last year's violence

The brutal intervention by Georgian police on November 7, 2007, to disperse peaceful opposition demonstrators in Tbilisi served to focus international attention on the extent to which the initial wave of democratization that followed the Rose Revolution four years earlier had been rolled back.

Twelve months later, after two controversial preterm elections and the catastrophic August war with Russia over South Ossetia, pressure on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is again mounting. Whether prominent opposition politicians can align and work together to force a further preterm election is unclear, however.

The November 2007 demonstrations were the culmination of a groundswell of popular protest triggered by accusations of corruption, protectionism, and the proposed liquidation of a political opponent leveled against Saakashvili in a live television interview in late September by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili. Okruashvili was arrested even as members of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) dismissed his allegations as "utter nonsense [and] hysterical and groundless slander," and as too "absurd" to merit a response.

'Georgia Without Saakashvili'

The following day, up to 10,000 people congregated in Tbilisi to vent their anger and frustration with Saakashvili's leadership in the largest manifestation of popular protest since November 2003. Participants put forward a number of demands, including Saakashvili's resignation and the holding of parliamentary elections in April 2008 as required by the constitution, rather than in the fall of that year as decreed by Saakashvili.

Ten opposition parties from across the political spectrum, including the People's Party, the Labor Party, the Republican Party, the Conservative Party, Georgia's Way, Tavisupleba, Chven Tviton (We Ourselves), and Okruashvili's For a United Georgia, aligned in a National Council that on October 17 unveiled a joint manifesto which repeated many of Okruashvili's criticisms of the Saakashvili regime.

It characterized the social, political, and economic situation in Georgia as "grave," accused Saakashvili and his "corrupt team" of "usurping power," and claimed that "political terror...reigns, and basic human rights and freedoms are neglected." It further called for the consolidation of Georgian society to elect in free and fair elections in the spring of 2008 a new leadership that would enjoy public trust and prove capable of tackling the serious problems the country faced.

The National Council convened a major demonstration on November 2 under the slogan "Georgia Without Saakashvili" that continued day and night until the police intervened in the early hours of November 7. (It has not yet been determined who gave the green light for the use of tear gas and rubber bullets.) Having declared a state of emergency and blamed the protests on Russian subversion, Saakashvili then scheduled a pre-term presidential ballot for January 5, in which parliament speaker David Bakradze announced Saakashvili's victory over six rival candidates even before the vote count was ended.

Leading opposition challenger Levan Gachechiladze demanded either a recount or the annulment of the official results that gave Saakashvili some 53 percent of the vote. Gachechiladze claimed that Saakashvili in fact polled only 46-48 percent of the vote, less than the 50 percent plus one vote required for a first-round win. International observers noted serious procedural violations, but did not challenge the official results, instead urging the authorities to stamp out the potential for fraud prior to the pre-term parliamentary ballot that Saakashvili set for May 21.

But the parliamentary elections only duplicated the flaws of the presidential ballot four months earlier. The outgoing parliament hastily enacted legislation amending the election law to reduce the number of mandates from 235 to 150 and give Saakashvili's UNM what the opposition claimed was an unfair advantage. Half the 31 opposition candidates elected rejected their mandates rather than participate in the working of what they termed an illegitimate parliament.

War With Russia

In the wake of Georgia's military humiliation by Russia in the August war, most opposition parties pledged their support for Saakashvili. Speaking on August 18 at a joint press conference in Tbilisi, the leaders of the Republican party and the New Rightists, Davit Usupashvili and Davit Gamkrelidze, affirmed that they planned for the moment to prolong the "moratorium" on confrontation with the authorities that they declared in the wake of the Russian incursion on to, and bombardment of, Georgian territory outside South Ossetia.

Other opposition figures, however, made clear that their restraint would not last indefinitely. Gachechiladze was quoted by on August 15 as saying the opposition would campaign for pre-term elections (it is not clear whether he meant presidential, or parliamentary, or both) to be held "at the earliest opportunity," possibly within two months. Kakha Kukava, leader of the Conservative Party that backed Gachechiladze's failed presidential bid, similarly affirmed that once tensions abated, his party would call for mass demonstrations aimed at ousting the current leadership. He castigated Saakashvili for embarking on "a war we could not win."

And the opposition was not alone in questioning Saakashvili's judgment and leadership style. In the run-up to the May parliamentary ballot, Nino Burjanadze, the speaker of the outgoing parliament who with Saakashvili and the late Zurab Zhvania spearheaded the 2003 Rose Revolution, demonstratively withdrew from the UNM election list, citing unspecified tactical disagreements with Saakashvili. On October 1, she unveiled a list of 43 questions about how and by whom the decision to begin the war in South Ossetia was taken, and with what aim; and why, after "billions" of dollars were spent on the defense sector over the past five years, the Georgian Army capitulated within days.

When those questions remained unanswered, Burjanadze addressed an open letter to Saakashvili on October 24 criticizing the absence of media freedom; branding the new one-party parliament as "a fiction;" alleging that "the main priority of the current authorities is to cling to power;" and warning that Georgia will never succeed in restoring control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- which Russia recognized as independent statelets in late August -- with "the same policies, the same style of governance, and the same political team."

A second former Saakashvili ally, Ambassador to Russia Erosi Kitsmarishvili, similarly announced in late September that he could no longer support the policies of the Georgian government. He called for a "political alternative" to the "discredited authorities," one that could "restore the political equilibrium" and "create a system of checks and balances," presumably to counter the power of the executive branch.

But the hardest-hitting criticism of Saakashvili came from human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari, who in late September accused him of "authoritarian rule," arguing that "this is not democracy. This is not the road to Europe." Subari had written to Saakashvili in January, shortly after his controversial reelection, warning that failure to combat elite corruption, police violence, and human rights abuses would inevitably lead Georgia to another crisis similar to the November 2007 crackdown.

Subari subsequently announced the creation of a new umbrella Public Movement for Liberty and Justice, but has since said he will not quit his post to enter full-time politics -- unlike Burdjanadze, who plans to establish her own political party, Democratic Movement-Unified Georgia, the founding congress of which is to take place on November 24, the anniversary of the Rose Revolution. In an October 29 interview with the Russian daily "Vremya novostei," Burjanadze agued that preterm elections should take place no later than the spring of 2009.

Crucially, however, there is little indication that other opposition parties are willing to close ranks and align with Burjanadze. Nor is it clear whether Burjanadze's supporters will attend the rally in Tbilisi that seven opposition parties plan to hold on November 7 to mark the first anniversary of the crackdown. Even attendance at the rally may be sparse: of some 410 people polled by the weekly "Kviris palitra," over 40 percent said they would not attend, possibly reflecting a fear of renewed instability in the wake of the August war.