Tbilisi Awaits ‘Hot Spring’

Georgia’s fractious opposition isn’t united, and probably never will be, but the various parties and factions seem to have come closer to a collective action plan to oust President Mikheil Saakashvili through street protests – in other words, they basically want another Georgian ‘revolution’, starting next month. Their strategies for what happens if Saakashvili goes, however, are much more vague and unconvincing, while the authorities seem determined to defend themselves against insurrectionary challenges, however forceful they might become. So the Georgian capital is now bracing itself for another series of angry demonstrations outside parliament, and as always, no one knows how long they will go on for, or what the outcome will be. More background from my regular column in The Moscow Times:

Forecasters in Georgia have been predicting a ‘hot spring’ as the date for this turbulent country’s latest political showdown approaches. On April 9, opposition supporters will return to the streets of Tbilisi, demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili. They have called for his head before, of course, but he’s still in office, with a mandate to govern until 2013. This time, however, it’s a little different. Several high-profile former allies have deserted Saakashvili in the hope of winning the presidency themselves, and in recent weeks they’ve been making increasingly bitter accusations against their former leader.

The political mood has turned poisonous as the opposition seeks to capitalise on discontent caused by economic recession and the disastrous war with Russia. A former prime minister, Zurab Nogaideli, called Saakashvili a “traitor and a coward” and alleged that he had misused state funds. A former speaker of parliament, Nino Burjanadze, described his government as “criminal”. A former Georgian ambassador to the United Nations, Irakli Alasania, accused him of violating civil rights, curbing freedom of speech and recklessly leading the country into an unwinnable war. Such allegations, coming from former insiders, are an indication of how deeply charged with personal animosity Georgian politics has become, although critics have questioned why such principled democrats kept quiet about their strongly-held ethics while they were working for the administration.

One potential flashpoint could be the return from exile of Saakashvili’s former defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili, whose controversial allegations against his old friend helped to catalyse mass demonstrations which ended in a police crackdown in 2007. The hawkish Okruashvili fled to France and was sentenced to 11 years in prison for corruption in his absence. However, he has insisted that he will soon come home to take on Saakashvili, despite the threat of arrest. Fears have been raised that such a confrontational move could seriously escalate tensions.

Saakashvili and his allies have hit back by suggesting that certain opposition leaders have been receiving money from Russia to finance their anti-government campaigns, as part of an alleged Kremlin plan to sow yet more chaos. In other words, the implication goes, the dissenters are doing the enemy’s work. Saakashvili has also pointed out that renewed street protests will do little to help rebuild Georgia’s shattered economy, and that what is needed now is stability rather than civil unrest. But as April 9 approaches, the opposition seems to be in no mood for compromise.