TBILISI, Georgia—It was a clear and cool afternoon—and the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution—when thousands of protesters marched from Tbilisi’s central square to the nearby bank of the Mtkvari River Wednesday. On the sixth day of an opposition-led protest that had closed off Tbilisi’s main street, a growing number of demonstrators had been held off by gas-masked special forces and police since early morning. Canisters of tear gas were lobbed into the air with the sound and speed of shuttlecocks.
All this was a preamble for the coming event: A large group of peaceful demonstrators who had gathered at Mtkvari would be hit with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. By evening, Imedi, the main independent TV news channel (part-owned, incidentally, by Rupert Murdoch) was raided by the government. (“They are now trying to break into this studio,” the anchor announced seconds before the screen went blank.) Hours later, President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a state of emergency—sending all but government TV channels off the air and banning all demonstrations—claiming that Russia has been trying to orchestrate a coup.
Unlike many of its post-Soviet neighbors, Georgia does not respond stoically to police violence. What the opposition had not managed in six days of protest, the government achieved in a period of hours: galvanizing most of the population against it. President Saakashvili may have been lionized by Georgians as a populist hero, touted by the West as a democratic reformer, and hailed as the personification of President George W. Bush’s greatest foreign-policy achievement (barring Afghanistan), but his recent actions have left people scratching their heads.
Those of us who have been here a while have one thing to say: We told you so.
The details of the current crisis are too murky and require too many meandering back stories and conspiracy theories to explain here, but the broad strokes should sound familiar: A former government minister is ousted and exiled, enters the opposition, and galvanizes a following. A president panics, calls a state of emergency, rounds up the opposition, shuts down the media, and bans all demonstrations. U.S. allies are unhappy with the turn of events but are stuck: Both are fighting a common enemy, and they need each other.
But while no love is lost for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, there is much hand-wringing over Saakashvili. When Saakashvili led an opposition movement to oust former President Eduard Shevardnadze from power in the much-touted Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgia was a failed state, one of the most corrupt and moribund in the world. Since being elected president (with 97 percent of the vote—Georgians have a long tradition of deifying their leaders before turfing them out), Saakashvili has attracted unprecedented levels of foreign investment, privatized all but the most unprivatizable, reformed the police and tax-collection apparatus, and courted every Western institution you can think of. There’s steady gas and electricity for the first time in years. Georgia has more troops in Iraq, per capita, than any other nation in the world. It has also taken former colonial power Russia to task—which none of the other post-Soviet neighbors, other than Ukraine, has dared to do. All this has made Saakashvili an important ally.
But Saakashvili has been important in another way, too: He is the West’s favorite example of democracy emerging from peaceful regime change. With Ukraine’s Orange Revolution consigned to a dustbin of failed coalitions and bitter infighting, Georgia’s was the last of the so-called color revolutions to stick.
But many people here thought Saakashvili’s reputation as a democratic reformer was wildly exaggerated. A reformer, no doubt, but reform often requires extra-democratic measures, and from the early days of his tenure, Georgian politicians quietly, furtively, understood they would need to break some eggs along the way.
Democracy, with its checks and balances and trilateral distribution of power, was doomed here from the get-go. After the revolution, most of Georgia’s best and brightest took government posts. The opposition was largely made up of people too marginal, or too crazy, to enter mainstream politics, or former government employees who had been pushed out and carried a grudge. Georgia became a one-party state, with a rubber-stamp parliament and a tiny group within the executive branch making all the important decisions.
The reforms did come, but people complained that they came at too high a price. Small businesses have been seized for municipal makeover projects; the judiciary runs on orders from above; the media, while far freer here than in other former Soviet countries, complained that the government was shutting them out. Prisons are overcrowded with teenagers, and despite an 11 percent growth in GDP, unemployment hovers at more than 20 percent.
The West has been cautious—too cautious—in issuing reprimands for Saakashvili’s failings, and Georgia has suffered as a result. The endless approbation from abroad made it difficult for Saakashvili to recognize the very real grievances at home. For at least the past year, his party has invoked the bogeyman of meddling Russia to discredit dissenters and incense the population. In his long-awaited address to the nation Wednesday, Saakashvili announced that some of the opposition was being supported by Russia, which he claimed (not for the first time) was trying to overthrow him. Audio- and videotapes of opposition members talking to alleged Russian intelligence agents were unearthed. Badri Patarkatsishvili, probably Georgia’s richest man—part-owner of Imedi and funder of the opposition—was accused of being a Russian stooge and of using Imedi to foment revolution.
There is no doubt that Russia would like to weaken Georgia, which it sees as a child gone astray. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist regions that have declared their independence from Georgia, are supported by Russia, and a 2006 Russian embargo on Georgian wine and water has caused more damage to the economy and public morale than anyone could have guessed. But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there’s some truth to the accusations, Saakashvili isn’t off the hook. The Russians didn’t prevent Georgia from raising pensions or force the administration to tamper with court cases or assume a position of arrogance that has so infuriated the population.
But what soon became clear from Wednesday’s events was that Saakashvili was frightened. The opposition’s tactics looked very familiar—they were modeled after the tactics Saakashvili used to topple Shevardnadze. That included an outside funder with deep pockets, a much-watched opposition TV channel, and the ingenious use of flags, slogans, and symbols to simplify an anti-government message around a central rallying point.
And yet, even after the events at Mtkvari, there does not seem to be the appetite for another revolution. In 2003, people were unified, focused, and triumphant; now, they are weary and upset. People worry that a revolution would throw the country into turmoil. It would also turn back all the enormous—and real—changes Saakashvili has made.
Thursday night, Saakashvili found an ingenious way out. During a televised speech, he surprised everyone by calling for new presidential elections in January 2008, defusing a situation that could have easily turned into revolution or war. By the rules of the Georgian Constitution, that means he will have to resign on Nov. 22—45 days ahead of the polls and the fourth anniversary of the Rose Revolution.
In my Tbilisi neighborhood, you could feel a palpable sense of relief. “Everything is going to be fine now,” both my neighbor and my fruit seller told me. Depending on whom you ask, Saakashvili’s gambit is either a political masterstroke meant to restore confidence in his presidency or a sign of his commitment to democratic ideals. But even among his biggest detractors, Saakashvili has quickly gone from autocrat to mensch.
It’s unclear how this week’s events will play in Western circles. Georgia’s carefully managed business sector will be the first to suffer. Unlike neighboring Azerbaijan, Georgia doesn’t have the gas or oil that makes investors more amenable to risk, and Georgia’s competitive advantage lay in its being a relatively stable and easy place to do business. No longer.
Meanwhile, the opposition members have quickly switched gears as they look for potential presidential candidates among their coalition. They have promised to create a European parliamentary system of government should they win. Many people think that the coalition will survive only as long as they have a common enemy in Saakashvili. The Georgian government has decided not to lift the state of emergency ban on independent media, which will make running an election campaign much more difficult for the opposition. Without an obvious front-runner—and with reports of Imedi smashed beyond all recognition—it is far from over for Saakashvili yet.
But even those of us who understand that change comes slowly, that poverty is hard to cure, that inflation is often inevitable, and that sometimes you just might need to crack a few eggs (though not heads) were shocked by the heavy-handed response to Wednesday’s protests. I was at the demonstration at Mtkvari when a friend called to warn me that hundreds of special forces were coming my way. People panicked and began to run. Special forces came from both bridges that flanked the area, leaving protestors with no way out. People were hit with tear gas and rubber bullets, and some of us ran for shelter on a small cafe boat moored along the river. An older man who worked there tried to calm people down. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I used to be a policeman. Nothing will happen to you.” Two men tried to get the engine going. “We’ll sail away if we have to,” the former policeman said. But where to?