Saakashvili opponents seek fresh start for Georgia


ONE RECENT Sunday on Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue, a few dozen people gathered outside Georgia’s parliament to protest against a new law.

They said it would allow landowners to do anything on their property – such as uncontrolled logging, or even the burial of nuclear waste – without any government oversight, and they accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of placing the interests of big business over environmental concerns.

As the protest melted into the weekend crowd on Rustaveli, a few stayed behind, folding up their banners while laying out deeper concerns about Georgia under Saakashvili – the west’s chief ally and poster boy for democracy and the free market in the strategic and volatile South Caucasus.

“He’s done some good things. Tbilisi feels dynamic. He’s built a lot of infrastructure and it’s good that tourists are coming here,” said Tamuna Zandukeli (31). “But the media is totally slanted in favour of Saakashvili. There is no platform for the opposition to get their views across.” Her friend Tornike Kusiani (23) said the problems went far deeper than media bias.

“I was an observer at elections here and I saw that they can just do whatever they want. During the vote count they just turned off the security cameras and wrote down the number they wanted. The opposition has no chance.”

These are the kind of young, talented people whom Saakashvili points to as the future of his Georgia, the country that emerged from the 2003 Rose Revolution, when he and his supporters stormed parliament and ousted a tired Soviet-era elite.

The bloodless handover of power triggered extraordinary changes in Georgia, from the sacking of some 30,000 corruption-tainted traffic police to the replacement of ageing Russophone officials with twenty-something English-speakers educated in Europe and the United States.

The new Georgia broke with Moscow and sought to join the EU and Nato, and Saakashvili attracted foreign investment by slashing red tape: in the World Bank’s latest ranking for ease of doing business, Georgia is 16th, ahead of Germany and Japan; Russia languishes in 120th place.

Georgia’s economy has grown strongly since 2003, and striking buildings and bridges have sprung up around Tbilisi and in provincial towns between the mountains and the Black Sea coast. But in a freshly restored corner of Tbilisi’s old town, as pavement cafes glowed in the gathering darkness, a new political force was planning Georgia’s future without Saakashvili.

“A year from now he will have served a decade in power. That’s enough – he has done what he could,” said Irakli Alasania, a former close ally who is now a leading opponent of Saakashvili.

“Georgia has the right to a fresh start. Now he can help Georgia have its first democratic transfer of power. This can be his legacy, to imprint him in history as a real democratic reformer.”

For all his economic reforms and pro-western rhetoric, however, Saakashvili’s credentials as a democrat are still in question.

International criticism has been aimed at the conduct of Georgia’s elections, and at Saakashvili’s use of sometimes brutal riot police against anti-government marchers.

He has been derided for attempting to subdue opposition parties and critical media, and is accused of keeping Georgia on edge by exaggerating the threat from Russian spies and by claiming that his political enemies are controlled by the Kremlin.

He is also widely blamed for the 2008 war with Russia over Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, which killed more than 150 people, saw Russian troops establish bases on Georgian territory and badly damaged the country’s infrastructure, as well as Saakashvili’s reputation.

Some people expect Saakashvili to swap the presidency next year for a strengthened prime minister’s post – emulating his bitter enemy, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Alasania, who from 2006-8 was Georgia’s envoy to the UN, says opposition activists and their relatives are already being harassed and threatened ahead of October’s general election, at which the president’s party will face a new and dangerous challenger. Alasania’s party has joined a coalition created by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire whose futuristic compound glints on the ridge overlooking Tbilisi. Inside hang copies of works by Picasso, Schiele, Lichtenstein and Freud; he considers it prudent to keep the originals abroad.

Ivanishvili says he will turn Georgia into a flourishing and fully functioning democracy, but just days after declaring his ambitions, Saakashvili revoked his Georgian citizenship and police seized more than one million euro from one of his bank’s security vans. It won’t be an easy fight.

Alasania believes the EU and Washington are tiring of the unpredictable Saakashvili, and he hopes they will send enough monitors to ensure national elections this year and next will be clean.

“When Ivanishvili emerged as a political leader, our coalition became a clear alternative to the ruling party,” said Alasania. “We are credible – and Saakashvili now has a real opponent.”