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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Moscow Encourages Turmoil in Georgia

EU / BRUSSELS - Georgia's ambassador to the EU has said the European Commission made misleading statements about street clashes in Tbilisi that left almost 40 people in hospital and two dead.

Speaking to EUobserver on Thursday (26 May) in Brussels, Salome Samadashvili said EU institutions and member states have not delivered any form of official complaint to Georgia about the events despite commission claims.

No one has communicaed these kinds of comments to us about what happened - not any representative of the commission nor any EU member state either here or in Tbilisi. So we were very surprised to hear this line," she explained. "Up till now I have not heard anything, anything. The commission spokesperson's statement is not in line with the truth."

Earlier the same day commission spokeswoman Natasha Butler told press that Brussels is "concerned" about the "regrettable" events and warned Georgia "not to use violence as a means for political ends."

"We urge the need to maintain law and order but as we have already told the Georgian government this needs to be done in an appropriate way and the EU therefore urges the Georgian government to investigate all allegations of excessive use of violence."

Riot police on Thursday attacked anti-government protesters on Rustali Avenue in Tbilisi with water cannon, tear gas and rubber batons fifteen minutes after their permit to hold the demonstration expired at midnight. The protesters fought back with sticks and flag poles. Two people died after being hit by a car.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili described the events as a Russian plot to weaken his rule on the day of the 20th anniversary of Georgia's declaration of independence.

Moscow equates a violence-prone militant fringe with “the people,” but the people have actually disappointed their radical leaders. By May 22, the size of the protest rally in Tbilisi had shrunk to 2,000 by day and several hundred at night (AFP, Reuters, May 22, 23), when Georgian Party standard-bearer, Levan Gachechiladze, addressed potential Tbilisi supporters in the following terms: “We are preparing for the decisive selfless acts. My friends, residents of the Vakhe, Saburtalo, Vera, Gldani [Tbilisi neighborhoods], I am urging all of you to gather and resort to decisive selfless acts” (Kavkas-Press, May 22).

Apart from the heroic pose, the statement references quite concretely a possible social base for anti-government protests. Those neighborhoods are home to specific social groups whose livelihoods had variously depended on the Soviet system, the 1990s’ shadow economy system and the Eduard Shevardnadze presidency’s patronage system. These three overlapping systems and their remnants were all removed after 2003 by fast-paced reforms. This resulted in a social base for anti-government—in fact, anti-reform—protests, concentrated in Tbilisi (much less elsewhere). The extra-parliamentary opposition activated that base from 2007 onward, with a constantly diminishing rate of success. Those neighborhoods used to be Gachechiladze’s and his allies’ strongholds, but the appeal to them has now fallen flat.

Thus, popular support was nowhere in sight on the eve of the “Day of Rage” and the “final reckoning,” announced by Gachechiladze’s Georgian Party and Nino Burjanadze’s People’s Assembly for May 25 and 26 (National Independence Day), respectively.

People’s Assembly and Georgian Party leaders have not announced any programs or alternative ideas for governing, and have no expert teams to back them. Their only demand is the immediate resignation of President Saakashvili and the government, to be followed by new parliamentary and presidential elections in a “revolutionary” mode. Meanwhile, these groups and their leaders have practically dropped out of regular electoral processes due to their low ratings. They declined to take up their few parliamentary seats in 2008, and declined to run in the 2010 local elections, given their ratings in the low single digits. Although enjoying unimpeded access to state television, their popularity has not risen from that level.

By contrast, the constitutional opposition parties—Christian-Democrats and Our Georgia-Free Democrats—plan to compete in the 2012 and 2013 parliamentary and presidential elections. Led by Giorgi Targamadze and Irakli Alasania, respectively, these parties have distanced themselves from “revolutionary” street politics. They seek legislative changes through the parliamentary process (no longer through pressures outside the parliament); they prepare for elections in accordance with the constitutional timetable (not pre-term); and they cooperate to lay a basis for legal alternation of political parties in power in Georgia in the future (instead of street-driven change). Moreover, the constitutional opposition fully supports Georgia’s Western orientation.

Thus, Moscow lacks credible or effective candidates for a pro-Russia political movement in Georgia. The Kremlin can only hope to utilize small, outer-fringe groups for instigating street trouble, or—in a worst-case scenario—trigger a political explosion by furnishing some casualties amid turmoil and blaming everything on the government.

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