Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Friday, April 24, 2009
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Back in Tbilisi, the opposition has been trying to turn the Georgian capital into a ‘city of cells’ - erecting mock prison cells on the main street outside parliament, in central Freedom Square and outside President Saakashvili’s official residence. This has caused disruption to drivers, bus passengers and schools, but despite opposition leaders' insistence that they were now taking ‘radical’ measures, there have been no attempts to blockade the airport, power facilities, or any truly drastic measures to shut down the country’s economic life and force a serious showdown with the authorities.
Monday, April 20, 2009
In the shadow of the egg-shaped glass dome which crowns Saakashvili’s ostentatious official residence, a few bedraggled activists took shelter from afternoon showers in mock prison cells which were set up to highlight their allegation that Georgia has become a ‘police state’. Nearby, security police in black ski masks prowled restlessly, on guard against any attempt to breach the gates. But in no genuine police state would protesters be permitted to hang posters insulting their country’s leader on the fence outside his office.
Graffiti spraypainted around the presidential residence describes Saakashvili as a “frightened rabbit”; in recent days, rebel satirists have also been throwing carrots, cabbages, and even an unfortunate bunny over the fence (see photo above). But the protest crowds have been shrinking, unable so far to capitalise on discontent about Georgia’s defeat in last year’s war with Russia and the alleged authoritarianism of the administration. Officials say they’ll allow peaceful rallies to continue as proof of the country’s democratic vitality, and to show that they’re not running scared.
Almost inevitably, however, there have been some unpleasant incidents. There was a late-night altercation between protesters and street cleaners after the trashing of computers at an opposition HQ and the mysterious disappearance of a Pampers nappy which had been attached to a big teddy bear supposed to represent Saakashvili. Civil-rights campaigners also claim that unidentified men in luxury vehicles have been intimidating and brutalising young demonstrators after dark; although the police insist they’ve been investigating every violation, however minor.
Then there was the arrest of a Russian activist from the pro-Kremlin ‘Nashi’ youth movement, who had been hoping to bring his comrades to Tbilisi to join the protests, despite the fact that no one here wanted their support. The deluded lad was shown on Georgian television confessing that the young Russians were to be accompanied by gunmen who would open fire when they reached Georgian territory. He later insisted he was forced to say this under duress, but he must surely have known that Putin fans aren’t exactly popular in Tbilisi, even among Saakashvili’s detractors, and the most they could ever have hoped for was a good kicking and a safe escort to the border.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Despite what the Moscow-backed channel Russia Today is saying today ("Sleepless nights for Mikheil Saakashvili"), the president has weathered the initial threat of political destabilisation, although – this being Georgia, where politics is often like theatre, played out on the street – there will undoubtedly be more to come in the future. (In a small country with big problems, the next crisis is always around the corner… )
Why has the opposition so far failed to rock the Saakashvili regime to its foundations, to send him running like the ‘scared rabbit’ they accused him of being as they lobbed carrots and cabbages over the gates of his presidential palace? Many analysts are marking this failure down to superior state strategy and cunning – the decision to let the demonstrators rally wherever they wanted, and not send in the riot police to crack heads, as Saakashvili did in November 2007, shattering his Western media image as democracy’s US-educated honour student.
The low-key policing massively reduced the chance of violent confrontation; a brief late-night altercation at the weekend showed how quickly tempers could flare. The president and his advisers seemed to be hoping that people would simply get bored and go home if there were no ‘provocations’ to stoke their ire and passion, and so far, that is exactly what seems to have happened.
Some correspondents have also suggested that a significant number of Georgians simply don’t trust the opposition - a fragile and sometimes fractious alliance of liberal democrats, belligerent nationalists, conservatives and street-corner populists - to do any better at running Georgia than Saakashvili. Some of the current opposition alliance are former regime insiders who’ve defected and now despise their former boss and all his works (which of course they once praised); others are the kind of veteran authority-baiters who would probably demonstrate against themselves if they ever came to power.
But that’s not the whole story; there is significant level of discontent here, as a Gallup opinion poll today suggests, but there’s also a sense of fatigue; weariness with the constant political turmoil of the past couple of years – street rallies, then elections; street rallies, then more elections; more street rallies, then the war with Russia, and now street rallies again… For some people, even if they have grievances with this regime, there has simply been too much politics recently.
Nevertheless, the opposition has showed the kind of imagination which it’s been lacking for years. There’s been the cell-block reality-television show, the impudent antics of youth activists, and the decision to create tent camps with prison-style 'cages' outside the president’s office and the state TV channel, not just to block Rustaveli Avenue and harangue the public for hours on end, as protest leaders have traditionally preferred to do in the past. (Although, as ever, there has been a lot of tedious speechifying on Rustaveli – more than enough to discourage most young people from attending for long.)
So far - from the vantage point of Day Seven, at least – all of it simply hasn’t been enough. Critical mass has not been reached, Saakashvili has not fallen, and indeed has so far showed no signs of cracking, despite all the venomous insults hurled at his political record, his personal and dietary habits, and his mother.
I spoke to one oppositionist yesterday, a liberal lawyer who was involved in Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution in 2003 but broke with him on a point of principle shortly afterwards. I asked her whether she thought the protests had any chance of gaining momentum. She simply shrugged, sighed, and looked down despondently. “But we’ll continue, as we must,” she said. Even if these protests ultimately fizzle out, as last year’s did before them, some things remain certain: Georgia's problems will take a long time to solve, and the opposition will be back on the streets.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
The Georgian capital is in a state of nervous tension, waiting and wondering what will happen tomorrow - April 9 - the day upon which the furious and embittered opposition has declared it will start the process of ousting President Mikheil Saakashvili through sheer force of numbers on the streets. Opposition supporters will start rallying outside parliament at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and their leaders say they won't leave until Saakashvili is gone too - however long it takes.
But today, the government has been insisting that there will be no attempt to stop them rallying, unless they cause violence. However many people take to the streets, wherever they rally and however long they stay there, they will not be dispersed by force, insisted deputy interior minister Eka Zguladze. The authorities have given "a clear order" to each and every policeman to show restraint, Zguladze said.
"We see ourselves as a European democracy, and we are going to behave like one," she declared. All police officers in Tbilisi are on alert, and 3,000 police including riot squads have been mobilised "in case there is a need to intervene", according to the deputy minister - although she said that wasn't likely to happen.
Georgian prime minister Nika Gilauri stressed at a separate press conference today that any political violence would damage the whole country, not just the government. "The only thing that will be brought by unrest is loss of confidence, loss of economic growth and loss of jobs," he said.
However, the opposition appears to have no intention of backing down; at least, not yet.
Monday, April 6, 2009
This is a brief online propaganda video produced by one of the radical youth activist groups who've been targeting Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili in the run-up to opposition protests on April 9. The video condemns Saakashvili for leading the country into last year's war with Russia. Government ministers have accused opposition activists like these of effectively doing Moscow's work by trying to cause political unrest and oust the president at a time when Georgia is struggling to recover from the conflict and the economic crisis which followed it. More details from my column in The Moscow Times:
Dining out in downtown Tbilisi has become a somewhat uncomfortable experience recently, at least for President Mikheil Saakashvili. The Georgian leader has been rudely interrupted twice while eating at restaurants in the capital over the past few weeks. His persecutors, a mob of rowdy students, have been harrying him as the opposition pumps itself up for mass demonstrations which they hope will force Saakashvili to resign.
“We think the president shouldn’t be spending time in expensive restaurants while the country has so many problems,” one of the students told me. Their protest group, called ‘April 9’ after the date on which the opposition rallies will begin, is one of several dissident youth factions which have emerged recently. They blame Saakashvili for all Georgia’s problems – for the disastrous war with Russia, for the huge refugee problem it created, for the loss of Georgian territory and for the economic crash which followed. “If Saakashvili leaves and we get a more stable, responsible and diplomatic president, then things will change,” I was assured.
Another youth group has been busy pasting thousands of anti-Saakashvili posters all over Tbilisi. Many of them simply feature the name of the group – ‘Why?’ – over a huge question mark. Others show a picture of the Georgian leader with his arm around an American celebrity masseuse, or an unflattering photograph of Saakashvili surrounded by tragic images of last year’s fighting, attempting to satirise him as a playboy and a war-monger.
The humour might be vicious, but it recalls the impudent antics of the youth movement Kmara, which campaigned against President Eduard Shevardnadze during the run-up to the ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003 which swept Saakashvili to power. Kmara, which had strong links to Saakashvili’s inner circle, used to harass Shevardnadze when he made public appearances, blowing whistles and shouting offensive slogans, and put up posters showing Shevardnadze and his allies being flushed down a toilet together.
The opposition, often criticised in the past for its monotonously unimaginative protest tactics, appears now to have picked up some tricks from the Rose Revolutionaries, who knew how to use the power of pop culture and political satire to enliven their rallies. The April 9 activists don’t like being compared to the pro-Saakashvili campaigners of 2003, but their confrontational strategies illustrate how merciless the political struggle has become again here, as opposition supporters seek to oust yet another Georgian president by force of numbers on the streets of Tbilisi.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
The posters - all of which feature the one-word slogan, 'Ratom?' ('Why?') - have reportedly been produced by a new youth activist group, something similar to the Kmara ('Enough') youth movement which helped to organise the Rose Revolution which swept Saakashvili to power back in 2003. Like Kmara, the group doesn't seem to be lacking financial support for its antics. It also seems determined to insult Saakashvili as viciously as possible, just as Kmara did with its notorious posters showing former president Eduard Shevardnadze and his allies being flushed down the toilet. The Georgian opposition has long been criticised for its monotonously unimaginative tactics; now it seems that some activists are learning from the satirical, culturally-savvy tactics which the Rose Revolutionaries once used.