Friday, November 09, 2007

Georgia WTF

The pictures of riots in Georgia, being supressed by the police, cannot help but bring up comparisons with the Bronze Night in Tallinn. While our own April riots had a sequence of events building up to them, events that most TV viewers were not aware of, there was at least one cause that the anchors could mention: the unrest followed the relocation of a Soviet-era war memorial.

The Tbilisi riots are far more enigmatic. The official news sources could not quote anything except the opposition's general dissatisfaction with president Saakashvili and his political party. While my esteemed colleague has forfeited attempts to figure out what the hell is going on there, I have the advantage of speaking Russian. As usual with such things, LiveJournal is a good source of perspectives and links to relevant articles. Here's what I've got so far.

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected as president in January of 2004, following the Rose Revolution. Following a long reign of ex-Soviet bigwig Eduard Shevarnadze, he was a welcome Western-minded alternative. He had the support of the people, and some very important allies - the US took a particular interest in Georgia, since its location makes it a useful platform to project power into the Middle East and Central Asia.

The presidential elections were followed by parliamentary elections, which Saakashvili's coalition promptly won. Georgian law states that the President is elected for five years, and the Parliament for four. So Saakashvili's first term would've run out in the winter of 2009, and the cabinet's in the spring of 2008, in other words Any Day Now.

At the end of last year, the parliament passed a constitutional amendment rescheduling the elections. The government was reluctant to hold a campaign at the same time as Russia, which is having an election season extending into next spring as well. It was thought - not unreasonably - that Georgia would be used as a propaganda cause, and it would be a great temptation for the Kremlin to try and destabilize the small country, like it's done before by supporting the separatists in the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are still under the control of Russian peacekeepers. So the amendments, which were found to be legitimate, but iffy by the Council of Europe's constitutional monitoring authority, extended the term of the Parliament by six months. This would allow the elections to be held long after Russia had made its decisions, for better or for worse. Saakashvili bought this extra time by voluntarily giving up three months of his own term, thus having the Georgian parliamentary and presidential elections at the same time.

This is what pissed off the opposition. As it stands, Georgia's political system is fairly heavily tilted in favour of the President, and the rescheduling is also an obvious attempt to use Saakashvili's personal popularity to strengthen the position of his supporting coalition*. With a popular incumbent president currently supported by a loyal parliamentary majority, the opposition is completely out of the loop. It doesn't help that the opposition leaders appear to include the sons of Georgia's first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia*.

But the opposition alone couldn't make the riots happen. Why are the common people on the streets? Different sources put the number of protesters as high as 150,000 people, and in a country about twice the size of Estonia with almost three times the population, that's still a huge number. (To compare: the marauding crowds in Tallinn on the Bronze Night are estimated at being up to 3,000 strong, by the wildest counts.) What's got them all so riled up?

Georgia was one of the first Soviet republics to make a serious attempt at independence, and the only one except for the Baltics that is not a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (a mostly pointless virtual union established after the fall of the USSR to alleviate exposure shock in countries with little experience in self-rule). At the same time, its history has been infinitely more tragic. The early 90s were marred by extensive Balkans-style bloodshed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the corrupt government of Shevarnadze impeded the country's economic growth. Saakashvili was supposed to change all that. But Georgians are, for most intents and purposes, Mediterraneans. The country has a long history stretching back to the pre-Roman times - it's known to have been a trading partner of Ancient Greece, and it can be argued that it is part of the same civilization. As Mediterraneans often are, the Georgians are impulsive and impatient. In two and a half years of effective rule, Saakashvili has failed to produce an improvement in living standards as drastic as was expected of him. For all its new foreign markets - you can now buy genuine Georgian wines in Tartu, and they're quite good - the country remains relatively poor. When the people are disgruntled, they blame the leader.

So, this week the protesters took to the streets, and the situation rapidly dissolved into a riot. Police used water cannons and tear gas; in an unfortunate coincidence, the worst of the clashes took place in the same boulevard where the Soviet authorities once harshly suppressed a demonstration of Georgian independence activists, and people can't help but make the painful connection. The president declared a state of emergency, which included an information blockade: foreign TV channels were shut off, the local press was confined to quarters. That is finished now, and it seems that it might have had a point: given a bit of time to catch their breath without having to worry about the media, the government and opposition leaders were able to meet and agree on terms.

Stunned by the riots, Saakashvili has gathered up his bravery and gone all-in. He has proposed a shotgun election in January of 2008, less than two months away. Ideologically, the opposition has lost its footing: they cannot accuse Saakashvili of being a corrupt, power-hungry politician if he is volunteering to cut his own term by a full year to give the people a chance to express their distrust of their leader. At the same time, the president is effectively counteracting claims that the police suppression of the riots signalled an end of democracy in Georgia - in the wake of the crisis, he's doing the most democratic, absolutely textbook thing possible, by effectively resigning. Such a short campaign also leaves the Kremlin with precious little time to influence the elections, especially as the opposition has definitively proven its incompetence by failing to turn a 150,000-strong crowd into any sort of real political advantage.

At the end of the day, despite the sheer amount of balls it took Saakashvili to call an early election, it seems to be a safe move: for all the popular disillusionment with the supposed wonder boy, there does not seem to be any other Georgian politician with a viable chance to get the popular vote. Saakashvili will most likely be re-elected, in a free and democratic poll monitored by European observers and the US advisors already in the country, and the opposition will be silenced.

Most of this analysis is based on the conversations in Georgians' LiveJournals, as well as Russian news sources, including anti-Kremlin ones. I've tried to arrange the information and pick out the scenarios that seemed most plausible to me. We'll see what happens.

Now for the Western perspective. The US seems very interested in having Georgia as a satellite nation; it is at once fervently anti-Islam, having a very strong Orthodox tradition (in fact along with Armenia it is one of the oldest consistently Christian countries in existence), but it is also fervently anti-Russia. For the US's interests in the region, Georgia shows a potential of loyalty second only to Israel. America might be a bit busy with other things in the Middle East/Central Asia region right now, but Georgia would definitely be a very good ally to have. Which is why the Georgian army is re-tooling with US equipment and training with US military instructors, and the government lends an ear to US advisors. There is even persistent talk of Georgia getting NATO membership. If Estonia could join NATO without a border treaty with Russia, Georgia can join NATO without resolving the issue of its breakaway provinces - as long as the US wants it bad enough.

For the EU, Georgia is a sweet piece of property as well, and you only need to look at the map to see why. With the last round of expansion, Europe has the use of Bulgarian and Romanian ports on the western shore of the Black Sea; with Georgian ports on the eastern shore, the EU is only one short skip away from having access to the Kaspian oil reserves - completely bypassing Russia. Hell, if they can extend the pipework to Turkmenistan, it would render Nord Stream redundant!

At the same time, Georgia is a far easier mark than Turkey. The EU is more or less done in the north and its own immediate vicinity; like all the major powers today, it is most interested in Central Asia. If it has a serious interest in access to the Caspian - and it damn well has to - it will have a far easier time integrating little old Georgia, than the enormous, barely secular mess that is the former Ottoman Empire. If the Georgian people's main complaint with the Western-minded Saakashvili is that he's not making the economy grow quickly enough, well, that's easy. The EU has more than enough experience in pulling up destitute post-Soviet economies by the ears. Hell, let's not forget that Mart Laar held an official rank as Saakashvili's advisor!

Estonia could really use a new project, something to make us feel good about ourselves, make us feel relevant as a part of a single Europe, and also make us be seen as relevant, as a useful European force. For about a microsecond there, Estonia had an internal meme of becoming a world expert on Russia, the West's go-to guys on how to deal with our eastern neighbours. That didn't turn out well, but we can still become the world authority on rehabilitating downtrodden small countries, like we've done with ourselves. Estonia is in a good position for taking the lead on a project that has the attention and backing of the entire EU, proving our expertise and establishing ourselves as something more than just the homeland of Skype and cheap beer.

Georgia has a long way to go, but it's still on the right track. Let's see what happens.

--------
*There's a parallel to be drawn here with Putin and United Russia, or indeed Andrus Ansip and the Reform party. The key difference in the former case is that Putin is directly leading the candidate list for UR - in fact he is the party's only name in a traditionally three-strong federal component, the three candidates that the entire enormous country gets to elect, supplementing the individual lists in each constituency. Saakashvili is not being quite as obvious about it, it's more in the style of George Bush's personal popularity in 2004 helping out the Republicans in the simultaneous Senate/Congress elections. The difference in the latter case is that Ansip is a creature of the party; for all his personal vote record, he ran in a safe constituency, and people who agree with the platform tend to just vote for the top name in the Reform party list. Ansip may have personal ambitions, but he doesn't have the credentials or charisma to drag a party into parliament in the same way that Mart Laar or Marek Strandberg can.

*The opposition leaders seem to include Tzotneh and Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, who seem to be brothers; there have been leaks of their phone conversations with Russian foreign intelligence officers. Zviad Gamsakhurdia's biographies mention that he had three sons, but I haven't found one that lists their names. Correct me if I'm wrong.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Andres Sehr said...

Great post. One thing you forgot to mention is the kickass helmets that the Georgian police wear, very cool. :)

4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Georgia is now a bigger basketcase than Estonia was 15 years ago. Which is rather sad, considering that they had one of the highest standards of living in Soviet times. (So did Moldova, BTW, and look at it now). They're paying for the collective insanity that was Gamsakhurdia.

Like almost every other mountainous nation, Georgians are very clannish (not even mentioning Abkhazia and Ossetia here), which makes change rather difficult.

WRT their pipeline potential. They still can't divide up the Caspian properly. Central Asian reserves are not that big. In the case of Turkmenistan, there are reasons to believe their figures are inflated. China is also courting them and has rather sharp elbows. The Russians also have the advantage of existing pipelines. It's like trying to compete with the local telephone monopoly by laying cable/copper alongside theirs. Their costs are sunk, they can undercut you at will. If the company owning transit is also the biggest provider of content, that makes it even worse.

Accepting Georgia into the EU before Turkey would royally piss off Turkey. The best way Estonia can help Georgia is to open its market to Georgian labor and goods.

3:42 AM  
Blogger Giustino said...

I'd like to know where Turkey is in all of this. They are right next door and part of NATO. Wouldn't they be the logical jumping off point for Western influence?

10:28 AM  
Blogger Giustino said...

The pictures of riots in Georgia, being supressed by the police, cannot help but bring up comparisons with the Bronze Night in Tallinn.

I heard this on the news, but I don't think it's true. In March in Copenhagen, the authorities did something almost as drastic as the authorities in Tallinn: they demolished a condemned building.

For that they were met with days of riots quite similar to the show that went on in Tallinn. And I am sure that the police were "fascists" there as well.

In both cases, you had a very small issue (demolishing a building, moving a memorial) that created a primarily youth-driven act of violence.

Saakashvili's protests are no Pronkssõdur or Ungdomshuset. They have a legitimate political opposition behind them. They have political leaders supporting them.

What great political leaders supported the Bronze night? Klenski? My point exactly.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to know where Turkey is in all of this. They are right next door and part of NATO. Wouldn't they be the logical jumping off point for Western influence?

Don't they have to be part of the West in the first place, to serve as such?

12:24 PM  
Blogger space_maze said...

Thanks for this summary - it is, indeed, a situation that is somewhat hard to follow.

One nit/smartassing, though ..

Georgia was one of the first Soviet republics to make a serious attempt at independence, and the only one except for the Baltics that is not a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (a mostly pointless virtual union established after the fall of the USSR to alleviate exposure shock in countries with little experience in self-rule).

Georgia is still a member of CIS - though who knows for how long. It did withdraw from the Council of Defense Ministers in 2006.

The only nation that has completely left the CIS is Turkmenistan.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Flasher T said...

Like almost every other mountainous nation, Georgians are very clannish (not even mentioning Abkhazia and Ossetia here), which makes change rather difficult.

Point conceded, though perhaps this idea might help. If Israel can be a European nation (and it is, though it does feel somehow different), then Georgia can too - it's just a question of will.

The best way Estonia can help Georgia is to open its market to Georgian labor and goods.

Oh, we've done that, in fact there are Estonian-owned vinyards in Georgia today, and Estonian trading companies promote Georgian wines both here and in the rest of the EU.

They have a legitimate political opposition behind them.

If you look at the makeup of the Georgian parliament, you'll see that the opposition in question is currently reduced to the level of, if not Klensky, then more or less Rahvaliit. Saakashvili's party has 135 our of 235 seats, and they have one other represented party in the coalition.

Don't they have to be part of the West in the first place, to serve as such?

They've been Westernized and secularized by Ataturk, and up until recently were extremely proud of it. But now, they're under very big pressure from the Islamic states in the region.

Georgia is still a member of CIS

Huh. Oh well.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Jens-Olaf said...

I like the thought that every state who wants to be EU must fulfill the EU-criteria, the laws, the adoption of them and so on.
The Turkey: Will they do, do they want submitt to EU law? It seems they did some changes but not enough yet.

Georgia: Did they start this process in direction EU already?

Russia: Is there any politician who want to start a process who submitts Russia to EU law?

And after all you have to show your ability to inforce the new laws. If this is the case no possible member state will get problems to become part of the EU.

Sometimes it is good to be a technocrat, or?

4:32 PM  
Blogger kloty said...

One thing to add: the only remaining Georgian TV-channel showed right after the riots a documentation about the april nights in Estonia to prove that all the police violence is according to the European standarts. There are far more ties between Estonia and Georgia than you mention in your article. Just search for Georgia in delfi.ee

12:22 AM  
Blogger Giustino said...

This post has been removed by the author.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Giustino said...

As a "veteran" of many protests, I think that the use of tear gas, clubs, water cannon, and other such wonderful things are the usual response to people throwing rocks/bottles at police.

I don't like it, but that is exactly what happened in Seattle in 1999 at the WTO protest. My friends did nothing and they were shot with rubber bullets there.

As for the trial of Linter and co., I would say that it is quite typical for the authorities to round up the organizers and throw the book at them.

This has happened many times in American history. In Chicago 1968 for example they indicted eight defendants after the riots at the DNC. One had a separate trial, but the rest of the activists were known as the Chicago Seven. It's quite a well-known case.

In my days as an angry protester, say at the Republic National Convention in 2000, the leaders of the protests similarly found themselves stuck in jail in Philadelphia for weeks awaiting charges such as "parading without a permit."

That is to say that if you mess with the authorities, they have ways to mess right back, and usually their methods are quite lawful.

But I don't recall the Estonian authorities pulling the plug on TV stations during the April "load up on free designer jeans" extravaganza. In that regard, plus the "state of emergency" Saakashvili went overboard.

Tallinn, from my perspective it was your usual street protest. People complain about police violence ... I'll remind you that in Genoa in 2001 a protester launching things at the police was shot in the head.

His name was Carlo Giuliani. Perhaps a distant relative of New York's "great policeman" Rudy.

Georgia though went the "storm TV station, take control of communication route". Such things are unsettling to most western organizations, NATO not excluded.

11:44 AM  

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