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Will Georgian Anniversary Bring Renewed Political Violence?

Riot police in Tbilisi a year ago -- will they be used again?
Riot police in Tbilisi a year ago -- will they be used again?
November 7 marks the first anniversary of the Georgian government's use of force to break up peaceful opposition demonstrations in the heart of Tbilisi. Opposition groups have announced renewed public action against President Mikheil Saakashvili on that date, with the added objective of bringing him to account for his disastrous military confrontation with Russia in August. Georgia's image in the West as a developing democracy will be influenced by the ability of the government and the opposition to mark this anniversary in a peaceful manner.

Large-scale demonstrations against Saakashvili and his administration lasted day and night through the first week of November 2007. The locus was the national parliament building in the heart of Tbilisi, and the protest attracted tens of thousands of people from all over the country. The demonstrations were sponsored by a coalition of antigovernment forces, including prominent political figures who had worked with Saakashvili during the so-called Rose Revolution of 2003 and after, but later parted company with him over issues of policy, or his highly-personalized leadership style, or both.

The demonstrations were deliberately timed to coincide with a major government-sponsored international conference, the "Tbilisi Summit 2007," staged to convince U.S. and European guests that Georgia was ready for membership of NATO and the European Union. (This writer participated at the invitation of the Georgian presidency.)

In reality, the entire conference was geared to ostentatiously promoting Saakashvili's near cult of personality, and some participants felt that the lavish expenditure -- including the deployment of thousands of troops to maintain security --was out of keeping for a country of Georgia's modest living standards. No opposition figures, no matter how distinguished, were invited, and one day's program was moved out of Tbilisi at short notice to limit contact between demonstrators and foreign visitors.

The demonstrations were intended both to mobilize public sentiment against the government and to convey to the foreign participants a perspective different from Saakashvili's. On four evenings, this writer spent hours mingling with the demonstrators, listening to their comments in Russian and English. The mood of the crowd was overwhelmingly peaceful, in the tradition of the Rose Revolution, with families bringing young children to a generally festive atmosphere. Relations between demonstrators and police were friendly; certainly, nobody on either side was looking for a fight. On the final evening of the conference, there was no evident threat of violence.

Comments about Saakashvili were mixed and by no means all negative, but the crowd was certainly unhappy with the government. Two themes dominated. First, Georgia's leaders had forgotten that it was the people who made possible the Rose Revolution, and they were now ruling in as arbitrary a manner as had Eduard Shevardnadze’s administration previously. Second, the cost of living, especially of food, was beyond the capacities of normal people, but government policies favored a small minority composed of nouveau riche businessmen and foreigners. The demonstrations thus reflected significant public alienation from a supposedly populist government.

The official response was delayed until after the last of the Tbilisi Summit participants had departed, and then came in the form of riot police employing tear gas and truncheons. The impact on Georgia's reputation for peaceful and democratic politics was severe, and the alienation of the political opposition exacerbated. President Saakashvili has since said that day "showed us our mistakes and taught us to listen to the people." The opposition, however, is clearly not convinced.

This November 7 will be another test of Georgia's political maturity, against the twin backdrops of the calamitous military confrontation with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the presidential election in the United States, Georgia's main Western patron and aid source.

This year's demonstrations will take place in a very different context from those in 2007. Much of the economic progress achieved since Saakashvili's election as president in 2004 (a major theme of the Tbilisi Summit) has been reversed by the August war, while any expectations of restoring Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia (also a prominent theme at the conference) have been relegated to the indefinite future.

Also at stake is Saakashvili's stated commitment to democratic and judicial reform. A year ago, most Western governments tended to give the Georgian president the benefit of the doubt, despite growing reservations. Today, the doubts and reservations have been multiplied by Saakashvili’s handling of both domestic and foreign problems. His reputation is very much on the line this November 7.

The same is very much true for the Georgian opposition, which has shown itself to be fractious, unfocused, and unable to present a coherent alternative to the government on any of the challenges facing the young Georgian state. Beyond anti-Russian sentiment and a desire to enter the NATO security alliance, the Georgian opposition is characterized by little other than its rejection of both Saakashvili and his policies.

The West will be watching Georgia again this November 7, but with anxiety.

E. Wayne Merry is a former U.S. State Department and Pentagon official and now a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL