Why Revolution Could Be, But Won’t Be Coming to the Caucaus: Georgia
Since taking power in 2003 in a revolutionary wave of popular support, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government has faced a number of tests. Following a widely denounced crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in 2007, a disastrous war with Russia in 2008, and months of sit-in protests paralyzing downtown Tbilisi in 2009, Saakashvili appeared to be on his political deathbed. But after a successful campaign in the 2010 local elections, the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party is once again back on solid footing, even if the country still is not.
Many Georgians remain deeply discontented with the Saakashvili government, and several opposition leaders have called revolution “inevitable.” Michael Cecire, political analyst and founder of Tbilisi based news-zine Evolutsia.net, said that primary cause of this is the naggingly sluggish economy. Despite all the talk of the Georgian economy rebounding from the double-barreled crisis in 2008 caused by the war and the global economic meltdown, Georgians have seen little real improvement in their own economic situation, and the bad economy could become tinder to the revolutionary fire, he said.
“Inflation is high, prices for energy and food are rising, and income inequality seems to be getting worse, not better. In many ways, it’s a perfect storm for a smart opposition candidate to run on a forward-looking, policy-oriented platform,” he said.
Furthermore, after enacting radical and effective democratic reforms in the early years after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili’s reforms seem to have run out of steam – a situation that is not lost on the public — said political analyst and Tbilisi State University professor Kornely Kakachia.
“The Georgian public is kind of disoriented at this stage,” he said. “It supports the government’s Euro-Atlantic integration policy and democratic reforms, but at the same time it also realizes that this particular government has already exhausted its progressive ideas. The only aim of the current authorities is just to maintain stability and the current status quo.”
However, despite the stalled reforms and underperforming economy, both Cecire and Kakachia maintain that the prospect of another popular revolution in Georgia remains unlikely. “Revolution fatigue” is a common symptom of Georgia’s recent history, and most Georgians remain unwilling to risk the last decade’s gains for an unknown future. Cultural obstacles and external threats also factor in, Kakachia said.
“Georgians are not prone to use deteriorated social conditions as a precondition to demand regime change,” he said. “While they understand the legitimacy of their social rights, most of them still fear that, in case of [revolution], the only country that would benefit from the instability is Russia. The Russian factor somehow halts a real manifestation of social demands and as this important factor remains unchanged.”
Still, with Georgia’s famously unpredictable leadership, nothing is certain. An official from a Washington-backed pro-democracy NGO said that in early 2007, the mood in the NGO community was “mission accomplished.” Many were ready to pack up and leave the country. Then, when protestors disputing an election were attacked by government goons with clubs and tear gas, reality set in again. The following year, despite a gradual ratcheting up of tensions, no one – including the U.S. military units training Georgian soldiers in the country – expected the Georgian army’s sudden assault on Tskhinvali, which led to all-out war with Russia. Although all of the conditions in Georgia point to a continuation of the status quo, Saakashvili is known to like to shake things up.
However, the one condition that has held up change in Georgia perhaps more than any other is the question of who and what comes next. In Russia in 2007, before it was known what would happen at the end of Vladimir Putin’s second and possibly last term as president, a poignant comedy sketch appeared on Russian TV depicting a group of adolescents playing football in a park. Eventually, one of their mothers appeared shouting, “Volodya (short for Vladimir)! Your time is up! Time to come home.” Volodya obeys, taking the football with him, for it was his. With Volodya and the ball gone the rest of the players were left to look around and each other and ask, “What are we going to do without Vladimir?”
As in Russia in 2007, it remains nearly impossible to imagine Georgian politics without Georgia’s preeminent leader, and the opposition has done a sad job of presenting alternatives. Most of the disparate opposition parties continue to be headed by a mix of old guard politicians, UNM defectors, bored millionaires, and professional rabble-rousers, and they have failed to present clear visions for Georgia’s future, formulate long-term plans, or present a credible challenge to the UNM at the ballot box. Kakachia said that the opposition has been unable to focus on core issues and all attempts at presenting a united front have failed. But, Cecire said he sees potential with some of the moderates.
“The opposition groups that get the most headlines tend to be the fringe movements, unfortunately, but there is evidence that other groups are putting together a measured stance on the issues,” he said. “Irakli Alasania’s Our Georgia-Free Democrats have resisted all of the revolution talk and are actively seeking engagement with the ruling party on a number of issues. Meanwhile, Giorgi Targamadze and his Christian Democratic Movement have become more strident, and confident, in their criticism of the government while trying to maintain an image of responsible partners. I would expect that if these parties can channel their respectability into a stronger campaign strategy, they have a shot at doing well in 2012 and even 2013.”
Such efforts may all be for naught, however, with the new Georgian constitution. The new constitution, which will enter into practice after the 2013 presidential elections, moves much of the executive authority away from the post of president and into the hands of the prime minister, who would be elected by the now-UNM-dominated parliament. Although Saakashvili remains coy on the issue, the gates have been opened for him to “pull a Putin” and become prime minister in 2013.
Most Georgians appear to be ambivalent about such a scenario, and despite the prospect of power becoming centralized in yet another personality for a decade plus, Georgia’s rough post-independence history is enough to keep the everyone erring on the side of stability for now, Cecire said.
“Georgians, it seems, are tired. They’re tired from the economic crisis, from the war, from the 2007 crackdown, from the Rose Revolution, and even from the chaotic 1990s. For all the government’s faults, and there are many, this is probably about as close to a feeling of extended normalcy that many Georgians have felt for a long time, and they aren’t prepared to trade it away on the off-chance that something better can take its place. However, this does mean that there is a very big opportunity for the opposition to split the difference and tap into popular discontent without promising the trials and dangers of revolution. But it will take a long period of intense, and very public, credibility-building for this to happen,” he said.
Next up: Armenia
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