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Georgians, And Some Westerners, Nervous As Political Deadlock Persists

Though the numbers of demonstrators have dwindled, Georgia's opposition continues to demand President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation and early elections.
Though the numbers of demonstrators have dwindled, Georgia's opposition continues to demand President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation and early elections.
For almost two months, the central streets of Tbilisi have been blocked by mock prison cells meant to convey the message that Georgia is a police state. Protesters continue to insist that President Mikheil Saakashvili must resign; he has said repeatedly he will not do so.

If the stalemate persists, the cells may come to resemble the Hizballah "tent city" that stood in Beirut, Lebanon, for 17 months, between November 2006 and May 2008.

But there is also a vague feeling in the air that the endgame may be close, making everybody nervous about what precise form it will take. Given that Saakashvili's resignation is extremely unlikely, and the radical wing of the opposition remains intransigent, there are two options left: either the opposition gradually winds up its street protests, or police resort to force to quash them.

The strategy of both the government and the radical opposition (the parliamentary opposition does not support the ongoing street actions) is based on lessons learned from the previous crisis, that of November 7, 2007. On that day, Georgian police dispersed protesters similarly demanding Saakashvili's resignation; raided the offices of Imedi, an independent TV station owned by the late Badri Patarkatsishvili, the most formidable force behind the opposition at that time; and imposed emergency rule.

Those actions -- especially, the latter two measures -- elicited strong international criticism, which prompted Saakashvili to step down and call early elections approximately one year before his first term in office expired. Saakashvili and his party, the National Movement, won presidential and parliamentary elections in January and May 2008, respectively, but in both cases the opposition rejected the results as rigged, and most opposition parties refused to take up their seats in the new parliament. International observers criticized many aspects of both ballots, but did not question the validity of the results.

The lesson that the opposition drew from this was that Saakashvili can be forced through street protests to resign if he forfeits the support of the West. They also counted on his international support having already dwindled following the August 2008 war with Russia.

Numerous statements by opposition leaders indicate that they envisaged the following hypothetical scenario: people gather for a huge demonstration on April 9. At some point a few days later, Saakashvili loses patience and orders the police to use force. Street skirmishes result in casualties.

This causes even broader public outrage, and, most importantly, a phone call from Washington or Brussels: "Enough is enough, Misha, we have supported you so far, but now you have to go. The good news is, we will guarantee you, and maybe your closest lieutenants, safety in some nice place in the West." The opposition concluded that it simply had to be radical enough to provoke a violent response from Saakashvili.

There is also Russia, of course, whose leaders have gone on record many times as saying that they want Saakashvili to go. The media and the authorities have alleged that some opposition leaders receive assistance from Russia, or, to be more precise, from Georgian businessmen and criminal bosses active in Russia. The opposition strongly denies this.

No Hotheaded Response

Saakashvili learned his own lessons from the November 2007 debacle. This time he decided to act contrary to his reputation as a "hothead." For the first day of opposition protests on April 9, he invited a group of international riot-police experts that observed the rally together with the leadership of the Interior Ministry.

President Mikheil Saakashvili has waited out the opposition protests -- so far.
Police camped within key government buildings, which the protesters could storm, but otherwise were not even visible near the protest sites. Saakashvili described the protest as a sign of maturing Georgian democracy, and invited the opposition to engage in a dialogue on further democratic reforms.

The new creative tactic of mock prison cells allowed the opposition to occupy strategic locations in the capital even after the number of protesters declined and most cells remained empty. Popular opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze publicly outlined the crux of the strategy: "If the police attack us, that's fine; if Misha allows the cells to stay, he will appear weak."

But contrary to Gachechiladze's expectations, Misha was not afraid of looking weak. Of course, this entailed sacrifices: parliament and the cabinet could no longer hold regular sessions, residents of the central districts of Tbilisi had to endure extreme discomfort, and some schools even had to suspend classes.

Tactical Victory

Saakashvili's tactics paid off in several ways. The international community appreciated his restraint and chastised the opposition for its radical stance. In a joint statement on May 26, the European Union and the United States "urged Georgia's government and opposition to end the current stalemate on the streets and begin negotiations immediately on a new program of reforms to invigorate Georgia's democracy." This sounded close to what Saakashvili had been calling for. The opposition became so angry it even threatened to stage protest actions outside Western embassies.

These tactics appears to have won Saakashvili greater public support as well. According to Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, an American pollster, his support has risen by five points to 43 percent since the protests began.

Saakashvili also hoped for an eventual split between the most radical and the relatively moderate wings of the opposition. There have been signs over the past few days that such a split may be imminent. Irakli Alasania, former ambassador to the UN and the leader of the opposition Alliance for Georgia, announced on May 26 his rejection of radical street protests, and affirmed his readiness to begin a dialogue with the authorities. Another influential opposition group, the National Forum, likewise rejected the tactics of mock cells, and hinted they may "coordinate tactics with" Alasania.

The other extreme is led by former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze and Salome Zurabishvili, a former French diplomat who served for 1 1/2 years as Georgia's foreign minister. In the evening of May 26, Burjanadze led a four-hour-long blockade of Georgian railways, and pledged to continue in the same vein.

However, so far the opposition leaders are still downplaying the differences between them as purely tactical, and affirm their unanimity with regard to the main goal.

Endgame Options

This presents Saakashvili with a difficult choice: How far can he go in allowing the opposition to disrupt the life of the country? Apart from making him look weak, the standoff has already caused considerable damage to Georgia's economy and its credibility in the eyes of investors. With the government tolerating a railway blockade, even a short one, a new red line was crossed.

Now that seeking consensus with moderates like Alasania is no longer necessary, Burjanadze and Zurabishvili will have a freer hand to challenge the government with more provocative actions. As the radical opposition does not appear to have any exit strategy, a crackdown by the government, preferably bloody, is the best face-saving exit for them. They can cry "dictatorship" and wait until the time is ripe for the next round of protests. Ending the protests quietly would gravely undermine their credibility.

Co-opting the moderates into the political process and marginalizing the radicals is obviously the best outcome for Saakashvili, and it looks as though his patience is not yet exhausted. If he finds himself in a situation where he has to use force, within more or less acceptable limits, this will probably be met with understanding both by Western governments, and many Georgians as well.

But this path is still risky: The inexperienced Georgian riot police may make mistakes and overreact, and the idea of using force against protesters -- even in cases where any Western government would have done the same -- is still extremely unpopular with the Georgian public. Everybody agrees this scenario is undesirable -- but nobody can be sure whether it will be possible to avert it.

Whatever the outcome, there are larger questions to answer. Will Saakashvili emerge from this situation as a lame-duck president, or -- as some of his supporters hope -- a reinvigorated one capable of pushing ahead with further necessary reforms, even if they are unpopular? Will the experience of the past two months' standoff make Georgia a more democratic, or a less democratic country? It is too early to judge, although the debate has already started.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia Chavchavadze State University in Tbilisi. The views expressed in this analysis are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL