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Is Georgia Ripe For New Wave Of Protests?

Georgian police break up a rally by veterans on Heroes' Square in Tbilisi on January 3.
Georgian police break up a rally by veterans on Heroes' Square in Tbilisi on January 3.
A recent assessment by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a prominent Brussels-based think tank, notes Georgia's success in maintaining both political and economic stability in the wake of the August 2008 war with Russia.

And in an essay in the "National Interest" in November, respected Caucasus-watcher Thomas de Waal explains how Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has succeeded against all odds in "recapturing the political sphere" by being all things to all men.

But the ICG also points out that the $4.5 billion Georgia received from the international community for postconflict reconstruction and recovery is now almost exhausted. Some political observers, including former President Eduard Shevardnadze, have predicted that recent increases in prices, tariffs, and taxes could spark widespread social unrest. Even if that proves the case, however, it's questionable whether the opposition, rent by rivalries and profound mutual mistrust, could parlay public resentment and frustration into a protest movement powerful enough to topple the present leadership.

The dispersal and arrest by police in Tbilisi on January 3 of a group of veterans of the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia and the August 2008 war in South Ossetia protesting the abolition of social benefits nonetheless highlighted the potential for protest, the range of disparate political forces poised to take advantage of any manifestation of popular discontent, and the authorities' sensitivity to any criticism of government policy.

The protest was triggered by the abolition in the 2011 budget of the social benefits to which war veterans were previously entitled, including the closure of a special hospital where they were entitled to treatment, according to opposition Free Democrats leader Irakli Alasania on December 8. Both the Free Democrats and the Christian Democrats earlier criticized what they termed inadequate funding for medical care in the draft budget for 2011, Caucasus Press reported on October 18 and 20.

At the same time, the Georgian government has commissioned the manufacture in Germany at the cost of 1.7 million laris ($958,230) of an astronomical clock to adorn the former National Bank building in Batumi, Caucasus Press reported on November 22. A further 1.45 million laris ($817,320) was earmarked from the presidential reserve fund toward the cost of a concert in Batumi in November by Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, the same agency reported on December 1.

Meanwhile, the cost of living hit a seven-year high in October, according to Caucasus Press on October 16, and on December 1 the National Bank predicted that annual inflation would hit double digits (10.6 percent) for the first time since 2007, largely due to a 16 percent increase in August in the price of bread. President Saakashvili admitted on December 17 that "prices are 'biting' people every day," and that inflation would continue to increase. He said those increases were due to rises in world prices for food and fuel, and dismissed as "populist" opposition claims they are the result of the government's mistakes.

In addition, residents of Tbilisi face increases in tariffs for water, garbage collection, and public transport. As of December 1, households that have uninterrupted water supplies must pay 3.15 laris ($1.78) per month per family member (up from 2.4 laris).

The monthly fee for garbage collection in Tbilisi doubled as of January 1, from 1.2 laris per family member to 2.5 laris, and fares on public transport rose by 25 percent in early December, from 40 to 50 tetris (I lari = 100 tetris).

Several opposition parties, including the Georgian Party, Kartuli Dasi, and the Christian Democratic Movement, have lambasted the price hikes, even though not all of them extend to the most impoverished families. The Georgian government has sought to cushion the impact by distributing to every household a single 20-lari voucher that can be used to pay for electricity. But Christian Democratic Movement co-leaders Levan Vephkhadze and Giorgi Akhvlediani told journalists on December 27 that the government should have cut the electricity rate instead.

It is not only the government's economic policy that risks triggering protests. Speaking in Prague in late November, Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze admitted that the deployment of Georgian servicemen to Afghanistan to serve as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is "not popular," and he predicted that "we are going to pay a political price for this." In a poll conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra" and summarized by Caucasus Press on October 11, 67.2 percent of the 404 respondents said Georgia should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

Of the 466 respondents so far to an ongoing online poll conducted by RFE/RL's Georgian Service, 25.1 percent said the overall situation has significantly worsened in 2010, and a further 27.9 percent said things have gotten worse, rather than better. Only 6.7 percent perceived a significant improvement.

New Campaign Falls Flat

Yet opposition parties' efforts to tap into pent-up popular resentment and frustration have met with only limited success. The most recent such campaign was launched in November by the People's Representative Assembly established in the spring of this year to function as a shadow parliament.

The People's Representative Assembly is an anomaly in Georgian politics insofar as it is not an alliance of separate political parties, but the brainchild of a group of respected intellectuals. The only prominent career politician currently associated with the assembly is former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, now leader of the Democratic Movement--United Georgia, who some observers believed hopes to transform the assembly into her support base for an anticipated presidential bid in 2013.

In the event, the assembly gathered only between 6,000 and 12,000 people for a meeting in Tbilisi on November 25, rather than the 100,000 the organizers had hoped for. It is a measure of the authorities' nervousness that they rejected a request to hold the gathering in a Tbilisi sports stadium. Turnout was, nonetheless, the largest for any protest demonstration since the spring and summer of 2009, but insignificant in comparison with the 40,000-plus mobilized in November 2007 by the 10-party opposition National Council to call for Saakashvili's resignation.

At a press conference on December 9, the People's Representative Assembly announced plans to create a network of committees across the country to promote civil disobedience with the aim of peacefully ousting the current regime. The first such committee, in the eastern town of Telavi, was unveiled on January 6, Caucasus Press reported. But former world women's chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili, one of the assembly's founders, admitted on December 9 that the time was not yet ripe for such mass action.

Flailing Opposition

The Georgian opposition may, as de Waal noted, be hamstrung by financial and logistical constraints. But it has also forfeited voters' support and trust by its seeming inability to create lasting tactical alliances; by the refusal of several opposition figures elected to parliament in May 2008 to participate in the work of the legislature; and by individual politicians' inconsistency, U-turns, and public feuding.

The most recent such exchange involved pitted Burjanadze against Levan Gachechiladze, one of the five leaders of the newly founded Georgian Party. Burjanadze's husband, former Border Guards commander Badri Bitsadze, was quoted by the newspaper "Asaval-Dasavali" (Whereabouts) on December 20 as saying Gachechiladze sought to cut a deal with Saakashvili in the wake of the early presidential election in January 2008 in which several prominent opposition parties backed Gachechiladze's candidacy. They, and Gachechiladze personally, publicly challenged the official election outcome that gave Saakashvili 53.47 percent of the vote compared with 25.69 percent for Gachechiladze.

Bitsadze told "Asaval-Dasavali" that at a subsequent meeting with Saakashvili and Burjanadze (who at that juncture was acting president), Gachechiladze offered to acknowledge the official results in return for being temporarily named prime minister and a considerable sum of money. Gachechiladze has denied those allegations; Bitsadze affirmed in the most recent issue of "Asaval-Dasavali" that they were true.

In addition, the authorities have sought to discredit prominent oppositionists, including Burjanadze and former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, who visited Moscow last year for talks with senior Russian officials, by branding them traitors to Georgia's national interests. It is not clear what role, if any, such allegations played in the decision by rank-and-file members of Noghaideli's For A Just Georgia party to oust him as party leader last month.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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