Home truths in Tbilisi

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 08/11/07):

It would be easy to buy into Mikhail Saakashvili‘s claims that Russian agents are responsible for the latest crisis in Georgia. The president’s strong pro-US and pro-Nato stance intensely irritates Moscow and relations between the two countries are dire. Russia routinely exploits separatist and border tensions, and a key oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia undermines Kremlin efforts to monopolise energy supplies to the west from the Caspian basin.

But leaders of Georgia’s recently formed 10-party opposition coalition, and this week’s street demonstrators, do not dispute the country’s pro-western orientation, which most Georgians, ever wary of Russia, support. They say their focus is domestic: jobs, wealth inequalities, corruption, a weak judicial system, rights abuses, and what is seen as the excitable authoritarianism of Mr Saakashvili himself.

The opposition’s slogan – «Georgia without a president» – refers to proposals to hold early elections and change the constitution, possibly by restoring the monarchy. But it also represents a personal rejection of Mr Saakashvili, whose political hero is Margaret Thatcher. Four years after he helped lead the so-called rose revolution and initiated an era of breakneck social and economic change, many Georgians appear deeply discomfited by the resulting upheavals.

Officials had been arguing for days that the street demonstrations were a function of a normal, healthy democracy. Then they suddenly changed their tune. Perhaps yesterday’s police violence shocked them. In any case, the ensuing state of emergency was justified with claims of a long-nurtured, Moscow-orchestrated coup plotted by «dark forces».

No evidence has been produced to back the charge and Russia predictably dismissed it out of hand, although it is likely to retaliate for the opportunistic expulsion of three diplomats. More important in the short term is whether the Bush administration, which views Georgia as a paradigm of reform in the post-Soviet sphere, accepts the government’s claims. If it does, that may open up another dangerous front in an already expanding, global Washington-Moscow confrontation.

The opposition has rejected the Russian coup theory, warning that card has been played too often and that the US is too uncritical in its support for Mr Saakashvili. «Beacon of democracy? For four years they did not question anything that Saakashvili was doing,» said Tina Khidasheli, an opposition leader who told the Washington Post she had been beaten by riot police. «The shining of democracy was in the streets today.»

Other demonstrators predicted that by ordering the use of force against civilians, Mr Saakashvili had crossed a line from which there was no coming back. Marina Kuparadze told reporters she had supported the president in 2003 but would do so no more. «After what he did today he has in fact become a political corpse.»

The opposition coalition, the National Council of Unified Public Movement, was formed after a former defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili, made sensational allegations of murder and corruption against Mr Saakashvili. He was arrested, publicly recanted and then left the country in circumstances that are still disputed. The affair dramatically underscored concerns about abuse of power and the rule of law.

A coalition manifesto unveiled last month accused the president and his «corrupt team» of «usurping power», said the country’s economic situation was «grave» and claimed «political terror reigns». It called for a US-style separation of powers, the release of all political prisoners, guarantees of media freedoms and an investigation into the death of a former prime minister in 2005. Opposition leaders recently visited Washington to press their case.

Notwithstanding this growing agitation, Mr Saakashvili says he remains more popular than his rivals. «The latest polls show 40% support and the closest opposition party has only 10%. If elections were held tomorrow, we could take up to 65% of seats in parliament,» he told Pavel Felgenhauer in the Eurasia Daily Monitor last weekend.

As a result of government policies, supporters say, the economy is growing fast, tax receipts and foreign investment are up, and defence spending, in response to the Russian threat, is also rising sharply. Western diplomats, while conceding Georgia has a long way to go, claim to be impressed by the country’s overall progress and say opposition and government should stop trying to score points at the other’s expense.

Whether or not Moscow’s hand lies behind the current crisis, mutual hostility seems likely to deepen as long as Mr Saakashvili remains in power and the Kremlin persists with its pressure tactics. In a little noticed move last week, Georgia withdrew agreement for the continued deployment of Russian CIS «peacekeepers» in separatist-minded Abkhazia province.

Moscow has long refused to withdraw its troops and Georgia cannot force them to go. But Tbilisi says they are the «main destabilising factor» in the conflict zone – and it may yet try. In a small country with big problems, the next bit of bother is never far away.