Moscow Encourages Turmoil in Georgia

By Vladimir Socor

Moscow has stimulated the radical opposition’s actions in Tbilisi (see EDM, May 24), and stands ready to exploit the unrest. Russian state television channels provide sympathetic, over-dramatized coverage of the street action in Tbilisi, for playback to Georgian audiences. Moscow portrays the violence-prone militants as espousing popular grievances and acting through legitimate means. By the same token, it portrays the Georgian government as alienated from the people and intent on suppressing civil rights through force. When militants using sticks attempted to storm the television building in Batumi and injured three policemen in a patrol car in Tbilisi, the response from Moscow was to attack the Georgian government for stopping the militants’ violence.

On May 23, two days before the planned “Day of Rage” in Tbilisi, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement directly encouraging the militants. Although the Tbilisi rallies were dwindling from day to day, Russia’s MFA spoke of “mass protests” demanding the resignation of Georgia’s president and government for their “ill-conceived internal and foreign policies.” It accused Georgia’s government of “preventing the country’s population and political forces from exercising their freedoms of association and expression;” it warned the government against “further aggravating the relations between authorities and the opposition;” and, “with profound concern,” it vowed that Russia would “pay close attention to the situation” (Russian MFA press release, May 23).

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.

This situation helps explain the now-or-never syndrome of People’s Assembly’s and Georgian Party’s leaders’ behavior in seeking immediate regime change. They realize that their political role will inevitably end with next parliamentary and presidential elections, if these are held on the regular time-table and on rules agreed between the governing party and the constitutional opposition.

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.