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Georgian Opposition Girds For 'Revolution,' But Is The Time Right?

  • Ghia Nodia

The Georgian opposition says it's time for a "vacation" for President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The Georgian opposition says it's time for a "vacation" for President Mikheil Saakashvili.

It appears that Georgia is beginning to react to the wave of revolutions in the Arab world. Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze has traveled to Egypt to share Georgia's experience of postrevolutionary transformation as the departure of Hosni Mubarak is seen as analogous to the departure of Eduard Shevardnadze from power in Georgia in 2003.

But in the eyes of Georgia's radical opposition, the dictator Mubarak is more like the dictator Mikheil Saakashvili, and Egypt's Lotus Revolution is a prelude to the coming revolution in Georgia (as yet unnamed).

This coming revolution has already been advertised by two opposition leaders: the former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze and businessman Levan Gachechiladze.

They even gave a time frame for the changes. Gachechiladze has promised that “toward summer” everyone will “quietly go on vacation” – from Saakashvili.

Both Burjanadze and Gachechiladze are veterans of the demonstrations of spring 2009. Back then, they promised the president would be swept away by a wave of public outrage.

No Longer A Forbidden Word

So what is different now?

First, the democratic wave sweeping the Arab world has revitalized the word "revolution," which opposition leaders avoided using two years ago. Another word has appeared in their vocabulary that was taboo a couple years ago: “blood.”

According to Gachechiladze, it would be great if the government left without violence, but it will have to go in any event. That is, the opposition does not rule out bloodshed, although it hastens to place responsibility for it on the authorities.

And these aren't the only differences between the situation now and two years ago. In 2009, most opposition leaders were able to set aside their differences. But since then, they have quarreled -- in fact, Burjanadze and Gachechiladze are not even on speaking terms.

Earlier this year, the strongly oppositional newspaper "Asaval-dasavali" published a sensational story stating that in January 2008, after the presidential elections that many people believed were falsified, people were ready to seize power on the day of the inauguration of the alleged usurper.

But, the story continued, the leader of the opposition, Gachechiladze, sold out for a couple million laris and prevented them from interfering with the ceremony. The source of this revelation was Burjanadze, who, as acting president and Saakashvili ally at the time, learned about the plot. Gachechiladze and his Georgian Party said the story was a fabrication, but the two men are still not speaking.

Rejecting Violence

Another portion of the opposition categorically rejects the potentially violent revolutionary strategy of the radicals. They are focused on winning elections and are actively negotiating with the authorities on how to reform the electoral system.

While Irakli Alasania and the parties that were allied with him joined in with the actions of the radicals two years ago -- albeit reluctantly -- today he takes a clearer position.

“I will go up against anybody who decides to pursue the path of revolution,” he said.

So what is the radical opposition counting on now? The main thing, of course, is popular discontent.

A spike in inflation was considered one of the causes of the recent Arab uprisings. In Georgia, inflation is running a couple of percentage points higher than in neighboring countries.

In addition, opposition activists are heartened by a strike by minibus drivers who were upset by the results of a Tbilisi administration tender among transport companies. The strike is over now, but the opposition hopes that when it declares "X-Day," the drivers will join in.

The same goes for veterans of the war in Abkhazia, whose protest was dispersed by the government in January, and displaced persons from Abkhazia, who were recently evicted from housing they were squatting in.

As Georgia's recent experience shows, a revolution needs media support. Two years ago, the television broadcaster Maestro began the mobilization with its program "Chamber No. 5," hosted by the popular singer Utsnobi (Levan Gachechiladze’s younger brother, Giorgi). That January, it declared that X-Day would be April 9. But now there is nothing of that sort happening.

And Maestro has become the subject of a scandal. Around New Year's, station General Director Kakha Bekauri quit to protest the orders of Erosi Kitsmarishvili, a leader of the revolutionary Georgian Party and founder of the company that manages Maestro.

According to Bekauri, Kitsmarishvili was prepared to finance Maestro only if it serves his party. Kitsmarishvili has denied the allegation. Bekauri's resignation was accepted, and Maestro continues to support the opposition.

Higher Pensions, Social Calm?

Apparently the government sees a danger in the rising discontent prompted by inflation and the use of that discontent by the opposition. The president's March 7 announcement that pensions would be increased beginning in September may be indirect confirmation of this awareness. The policy is a reversal of the government's belt-tightening strategy and clearly will do nothing to help control inflation. But the political subtext seems clear enough.

And what is the likelihood of a new -- and this time successful -- revolutionary wave in Georgia? We'll have to wait and see. But for now the revolutionary opposition's starting position seems even weaker than it was in 2009.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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