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Caucasus Report: September 10, 2005

10 September 2005, Volume 8, Number 31

IS GEORGIA HEADING FOR A NEW REVOLUTION? Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili can claim quite a few impressive achievements since he took office in January 2004, including toppling authoritarian Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze in May 2004, building new roads, and launching the process of closing the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia. But at the end of the day, his presidency will be considered successful only if he hands over his powers to his successor with due ceremony, at the appointed time, and with a broad smile on his face. If his successor turns out to be one of his political rivals, that will be an important precedent for democracy in Georgia. But even if he is succeeded by a former lieutenant, Georgians will not have much to complain about, provided that successor wins in an honest political struggle.

Conversely, if Saakashvili's exit from power resembles that of predecessors Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze, both of whom were forced out of office, it will be very difficult to call his presidency successful, whatever his achievements may be.

The question of providing for an orderly and lawful transfer of power arose during the Rose Revolution in November 2003. Opponents of that revolution argued that if Georgia becomes addicted to unconstitutional changes of leadership, it will become another "banana republic" (that phrase has become a popular term of self-denigration in Georgia), unable to break free of a cycle of coups and counter-coups. Supporters of the Rose Revolution were more optimistic in their line of reasoning: the new government has learned the lesson, they said, that Georgian society will not tolerate electoral fraud and attempts to create a dictatorship. Consequently, the government will be smart enough to yield power in an orderly fashion if it loses support in the polls.

Which argument looks more convincing today? Several events in recent months substantiate the more pessimistic view. I do not mean to imply that Georgia faces an imminent crisis, but the current trend, it if continues, may lead to one.

Let's revisit some recent incidents. In July 2005, Valeri Gelashvili, a parliament deputy from the opposition Republican party, was beaten by armed men in masks and black clothing in the center of Tbilisi. He suffered numerous injuries, including fractures of both jaws. Just days earlier, Gelashvili had defected to the opposition from the majority National Movement and gave a newspaper interview in which he said nasty things about the president and first lady. The opposition openly accused the government of masterminding the assault on Gelashvili, while the government insisted that the attack was a criminal one.

Both those claims remain pure speculation, as the investigation has not yet yielded any results. But in such cases, it is perceptions that matter. As relations between the government and the opposition were becoming more strained by the day, the government was inevitably the prime suspect. In this case, the presumption of innocence is stood on its head: unless and until the government proves that someone else was behind the attack on Gelashvili, it will be presumed guilty. And the message the opposition inferred from that assault was that in the political struggle, the gloves are now off.

A second incident in July, which I will call the "wrestlers' revolution," similarly demonstrated that relations between the government and the opposition are far from healthy. A group of famous wrestlers, including one world champion, was arrested on extortion charges. (The process of extortion was filmed by a hidden camera and then shown on television.) When the Supreme Court of Georgia endorsed the wrestlers' pretrial detention, their outraged supporters smashed furniture in the courtroom and later blocked Tbilisi's central boulevard to demand their release. After inconclusive negotiations, the authorities resorted to violence to break up the protest; some people not in uniform participated in the police operation. No one was injured. All major opposition parties expressed support for the protesters and only one or two of them conceded that smashing furniture in the court room was not acceptable behavior. Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party even called the police action "a crime against humanity."

That incident showed that the opposition was so desperate that it was prepared to align with anyone at all who was at odds with the government, even people whose behavior was clearly criminal. And the government seized on this point. You see, they said, what kind of opposition we have: how can anyone conduct a civilized dialogue with them? And so, given the stated impossibility of civilized dialogue, parliament deputies from both camps resorted to a fist fight in lieu of a debate on the matter.

In addition to the black eyes suffered by the politicians, there was a further casualty from that altercation. A political talk show on the television channel Mze that covered the wrestlers' protest in a way sharply critical of the government was banned after a live argument between its anchor and Giga Bokeria, one of the most vocal supporters of the present leadership. A co-owner of Mze happens to be the brother of National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili.

The third incident received the least publicity but is potentially the most important. In August, the Prosecutor-General's Office filed a case against Giorgi Usupashvili, whose brother David is the new leader of the Republican party. Giorgi, a lawyer, is accused of some improprieties in dealings with the court and the department within the Justice Ministry responsible for the enforcement of court rulings. An employee of that department, Irakli Sioridze, is in pretrial detention in connection with the case. Giorgi Usupashvili is alleged to have misappropriated considerable sums of money that he channeled to his brother's party. Here again, it is perceptions that count: the opposition believes that the case was fabricated in order to pressure and marginalize David Usupashvili, who is considered one of the most moderate and "constructive" opposition leaders. If the government cannot talk to him, it is unlikely there can be any political dialogue at all between the leadership and the opposition.

Then, on 27 August, Shalva Ramishvili, the co-owner and anchor of 202 TV, was arrested in somewhat unseemly circumstances: he was filmed accepting a bribe of $30,000, with a further $70,000 to follow, from parliament deputy Koba Bekauri for agreeing not to broadcast an investigative feature discrediting Bekauri. At that point, Ramishvili was not just simply another journalist: following the closure of several political talks shows, his late-night program featuring political debate had become the main medium for expressing opposition opinions. Ramishvili claimed after his arrest that he was simply outsmarted, and that he had planned to covertly film Bekauri a few days later when the latter handed over the second payment. But there was no way he could prove that claim. Discrediting an increasingly popular journalist was to become a great moral victory for the leadership: look what kind of people are in opposition, they said.

As the case against Ramishvili unfolds, however, it no longer looks like a moral victory for the authorities. On the contrary, Bekauri has become a major liability for them. Bekauri does not deny that since he joined the ruling party his income increased by several hundred percent thanks to an interest-free $150,000 loan that he invested in a lucrative business. That looks like a text-book case of the swift parlaying of political power into wealth: just the kind of thing that the Rose Revolution targeted. Bekauri has, in fact, become a symbol of the new leadership's corruption.

Ramishvili has been charged with extortion, but witnesses claim that, on the contrary, it was Bekauri who pursued Ramishvili in an attempt to persuade the journalist not to air his investigative feature. In light of those allegations, the court's refusal to release Ramishvili and his fellow TV 202 journalist David Kokhreidze on bail while the case is investigated is widely considered unfair. The late-night debate program on TV 202, which has in fact ceased to be a debate and metamorphosed into a continuous verbal assault on the government, has suddenly become very widely watched.

If the whole point of the Ramishvili affair was the fight for the hearts and minds of ordinary people, the government does not appear to be winning it. However unpleasant for Ramishvili the broadcasted tape may be, he is seen as the victim of an even bigger crook -- Bekauri. The government is seen as being ruthless to the journalist while covering up for Bekauri. Two members of the ruling majority who dared to say that they have questions to put to Bekauri as well were strongly rebuked by Giga Bokeria for lack of party discipline. One of the two, David Zurabishvili, has since defected to the opposition. The second, Elene Tevdoradze, was reminded that her son also has a business and she too may be asked some questions in that connection.

Then, in the early hours of 7 September, Irakli Kakabadze, the new anchor who took over the TV-202 late night talk-show, was severely beaten. Initially Kakabadze said that it was a purely criminal incident, but a few hours later he changed tack and alleged political motives. Almost everybody else cried foul: this is a punitive action against a journalist who has been the most severe critic of the government in the past few days. President Saakashvili expressed his outrage at the attack, as did other top officials, and he promised a swift investigation. But unless the case is solved in a timely and conclusive manner, it will be extremely difficult to convince the public that it was not the Georgian authorities who were behind it.

Two days earlier, on 5 September, Saba Tsitsikashvili, a newspaper journalist in the provincial town of Gori who is known for criticizing the local authorities, was also severely beaten. This incident is unrelated, but certainly fits the pattern: in Georgia it is becoming dangerous to say or write anything in the media critical of the leadership.

In each of these cases, one can debate the extent to which each party concerned is right or wrong. Sometimes journalists and politicians may also become victims of street crime, some journalists happen to be dishonest, etc. But in its entirety, this string of events is extremely unfortunate for Georgia's hopes of democracy, and for the claim by Saakashvili's administration to be a "beacon of democracy" in the region. On the other hand, the opposition emerges as weak, irresponsible, and immature.

The most serious repercussion of all this is a communication breakdown within the political elite. The opposing sides simply do not speak to each other any more. Politicians communicate by means of monologues that they try to make as personally insulting to each other as possible, and it is difficult to assess which party is more offensive.

One could, of course, ascribe this to the Georgian national temperament or to a lack of good manners among Georgian politicians. Both may be contributing factors, but the behavior patterns of both the opposition parties and the leadership suggest that there may be an underlying strategy.

The opposition is weak not only because it has few parliamentary mandates, but also because it lacks ideas and popular leaders. Therefore, it pins its hopes on the growing dissatisfaction of a public that, two years after the revolution, still does not see its expectations met, and it hopes that the ruling party will break up from within. It likewise hopes that President Saakashvili, who is emotionally unstable and alienates his opponents, will fail to hold the majority together and thus precipitate a power crisis within his own administration. If this is the expectation, what the opposition should do is to contribute to the tide of public dissatisfaction and, most importantly, try to take the lead in it, hoping that, if a crisis occurs, this tide will bring them to power. This is their way of drawing lessons from the Rose Revolution: that is, how Saakashvili came to power -- and they want to repeat his exploit. The opposing sides simply do not speak to each other any more. Politicians communicate by means of monologues that they try to make as personally insulting to each other as possible, and it is difficult to assess which party is more offensive.

One has to keep in mind that in the absence of a single strong opposition party, each of these groups not only takes on the government, but also competes with other opposition groups for recognition as THE opposition force, even if that competition is barely visible. Recent Georgian history teaches them (or that is the lesson they draw from it) that if the state power implodes, the group that has been most radical in denouncing the government has the best chance of coming to power, while the moderate and considerate ones lose out. If any disenchanted group protests the government's actions, even if they are obviously in the wrong, as in the case of the wrestlers, opposition parties cannot afford not to show support for them -- otherwise, cherished protest votes may go to their rivals. Conversely, if an opposition party makes a statement that is not harsh enough on the government, its rivals may accuse it of being in cahoots with the government.

On the other hand, the Georgian leadership's recent moves incline one to think that they want tensions to escalate. But why? One can revert to psychological explanations again: this government is driven by young radicals whose instinct is always against compromises, long deliberations and consultations. These are revolutionary ideologues, who want to write the new, beautiful democratic rules of a new Georgia on a clean sheet of paper. One cannot do this without alienating many people, but they do not care: that's how they are.

But there could equally be a more mundane explanation, in which case this leadership starts looking suspiciously like its predecessors. Opposition radicalism is advantageous for the government because it makes it easier to dismiss the opposition as an irresponsible and destructive force. The legitimate opposition should be listened to and accorded at least the outward signs of respect. A radical, criminal opposition, however, can simply be written off. If one convinces the public -- and oneself -- that the opposition represents a "criminal mentality" (the most frequent claim of the government representatives nowadays), authoritarian methods of making and enforcing decisions are easier to justify. To be sure, the previous two Georgian regimes fell victim to this strategy: Both were accused of authoritarian ways and ousted by force. But humans tend to believe they are smarter than their predecessors and can play their cards better.

There is one further historical parallel. Each Georgian administration has problems in preserving unity within its ranks, and it seems the present one is no exception: from the very beginning, even some of its own members publicly anticipated its imminent breakup. So far, those predictions have not come true and the unity of the majority was only eroded at the edges. However, the feeling that keeping the ranks together is a problem that persists. If so, the government has an additional motive to fuel tensions vis-a-vis the enemy -- without the opposition -- in order to strengthen discipline within.

However bleak the above picture may look, I do not think that Georgia is moving toward a power crisis in the immediate future. So far, the crisis is confined to the tiny political elite, and it will probably be difficult to provoke really large protests against the government, especially without a strong charismatic leader, credible party organization, and international support. The leadership looks increasingly autocratic in its behavior, but it also shows it can perform at least in some areas: building roads and other infrastructure, raising salaries, making Russia close its military bases. Saakashvili personally continues to enjoy a considerable level of support, even though it has waned somewhat.

There is one more thing: everybody understands that if there is another revolution, it probably will not be a "velvet" one. Unlike Shevardnadze in his final years, who had lost his nerve and sense of direction, the current leadership is motivated and believes it is doing good things for the country. Even if there is a crisis (and nobody said there should be), this leadership will not capitulate easily. People understand this, and the idea of a new revolution is not exactly popular.

The successful "Putinization" of Georgia, meaning the development of relatively stable authoritarian rule, may be another scenario people in the liberal segment of society fear. Nothing is ruled out in theory, but so far -- even if we assume the leadership is moving in that direction -- this movement does not seem successful. The new regime's popularity has clearly peaked, and if there was an opportune moment for introducing open authoritarian rule, it appears to have passed. Unless, of course, there is a large-scale showdown that will provide a new justification for it.

The political elite can still try to get its act together and find more civilized ways to address mutual grievances. But for that, both the government and the opposition need to realize that strategies aimed at fuelling tensions are counterproductive. They do not, however, appear to have discovered that yet, so there could be a bumpy road ahead. (Ghia Nodia)

HAS THE CHECHEN RESISTANCE SUFFERED A MAJOR SETBACK? In May of this year, radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev warned Russia to expect a "summer of fire," thereby triggering fears of one or more major terrorist attacks comparable to the hostage takings at a Moscow theater in October 2002 and a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in September 2004. Basaev claimed responsibility after the event for both those attacks.

But to date Basaev has failed to make good on that threat and, on 29 August, Interior Ministry commander Colonel General Nikolai Rogozhkin told a press conference in Moscow that between mid-June and mid-August his men succeeded in preventing an unspecified number of what he termed "large-scale" actions by the Chechen resistance fighters and killed or captured many others. In an 11 August commentary, the think tank Stratfor similarly cited Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) sources as saying that Russian security agencies have discovered a possible plot by Chechen militants to stage simultaneous terrorist attacks in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 August 2005).

The Chechen resistance has, however, claimed a major success in attacking the village of Roshni-Chu in mid-August. The Russian military commandant of Urus Martan Raion, southwest of Grozny, was killed in that operation during the night of 13 August together with four other Russian officers. One Chechen fighter of the reported 30 who participated in that operation was killed, according to (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 2005). Chechen acting President and resistance commander Abdul-Khalim Sadullaev subsequently praised the operation as a major tactical success. But it was reportedly veteran field commander and Vice President Doku Umarov, rather than Basaev, who planned the Roshni-Chu attack, and Basaev has not claimed credit for it.

On 22 August, pro-Moscow Chechen Interior Ministry spokesman Ruslan Atsaev claimed that Chechen police hunted down and killed the commander of the Roshni-Chu operation, who was identified as Ruslan Vakkhaev, emir of Urus Martan, and ITAR-TASS reported. One week later, on 29 August, Atsaev told ITAR-TASS that five participants in the attack have been killed and two captured. Among those killed, he named a second emir, Kazbek Batalov. He said the remaining members of Batalov's detachment have dispersed to their homes. Then, on 7 September, Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov announced that the entire detachment responsible for the Roshni-Chu attack has been "completely smashed" in a series of special operations, Interfax reported. He said more than 30 members were killed and a further six have been apprehended and are "providing testimony." LF

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "When the subject of the Chechens arises, the leaders of the West forget their humanitarian principles and the leaders of the East -- the principles of Islamic solidarity." -- Chechen acting President and resistance commander Abdul-Khalim Sadullaev, in an address to the Chechen people to mark the 14th anniversary of the proclamation by former Chechen leader Djokhar Dudaev of Chechnya's independence, quoted by