|Protests in Georgia: On Rustaveli Avenue|
|June 05, 2011|
The Georgians blame Russia for recent protests
LIKE a good actor, Georgia can swiftly change appearance without even leaving the stage. On May 25th it presented its ugly face, as a few hundred stick-wielding protesters led by Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament, clashed with police, who dispersed them with tear gas and rubber bullets.
This was the Georgia of old, where politics unfolds in front of parliament not inside it. But the next day Georgia celebrated its independence with a military parade in front of President Mikheil Saakashvili. All signs of the previous night’s disorder were gone. People strolled along Rustaveli Avenue, vendors sold ice-cream and soldiers posed with girls. This was Georgia’s new official face.
The most attractive face of all emerged two days later, when thousands of Georgians came out to protest against violence, whether carried out by the police or by the opposition. Not a policeman was in sight. As Irakly Alasania, a former diplomat and more respectable opposition leader, says, “the era when politicians can just call people on the streets is over. Georgia is building a new political culture. People want to determine Georgia’s future through elections.”
This is bad for Ms Burjanadze, one of the least popular Georgian politicians. Disorder was her only chance to claw her way back to power. Some policemen used excessive force on protesters who were no longer resisting, but violence seems to have been Ms Burjanadze’s goal. Having provoked the clash, she fled in a motorcade that ran over and killed a policeman and a protester, according to the police. The next day two more bodies turned up—apparently electrocuted by a loose cable.
The televised violence coincided with a G8 summit in France, allowing the Kremlin to milk the protest to the full. Russia’s foreign ministry decried “a flagrant violation of the right to peaceful assembly”. (A few days later Russian police brutally suppressed a peaceful demonstration in Moscow.) Russia Today, a propaganda television channel, even likened the Georgian situation to the Arab revolutions. In fact, Mr Saakashvili’s support is at its highest since his 2008 war with Russia.
The Georgian police have arrested several armed men linked with Ms Burjanadze’s party and notorious figures in Moscow. Whether the Kremlin sponsored Ms Burjanadze or just exploited an opportunity is hard to say. But she is a welcome guest in the Kremlin and last year met Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister. Russia is violating its post-2008 ceasefire. Several bombings last autumn were traced by Georgian security to a Russian military-intelligence base in Abkhazia, a breakaway enclave. Georgia kept this quiet. “We did not want to be told that we were crying wolf again,” says Mr Saakashvili. But Georgia shared its evidence with the West, prompting Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, to raise the issue with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.
Another Russian military intervention is unlikely. But disturbances help to make Georgia look unstable, deterring tourists and investors alike. After a deep recession in 2009, the economy rebounded to grow by 6% last year. But that was accompanied by double-digit inflation. Foreign aid of $4.5 billion over the past three years is running out. Yet foreign investment, which hit 20% of GDP in 2007, is now only 4.7%. The government is intervening to support farming, which employs half the population. Georgia wants a free-trade agreement with the European Union, which means restoring regulations it had earlier scrapped. Yet unlike Turkey, which is playing a bigger role, the EU seems in no hurry to embrace Georgia. Kakha Bendukidze, an architect of Georgia’s liberal reforms, says that, although the benefit of converging with the EU is not assured, the cost is high.
Georgia’s future will be largely determined by that of Mr Saakashvili. Last year the constitution was amended to give more power to the prime minister, making the president more of a figurehead. This will take effect in 2013, when Mr Saakashvili is due to step down. He refuses to be drawn on the question of succession. “I have a lot of ambitious plans for the next two years and I do not want to be a lame duck,” he says. Yet following Mr Putin’s example by making himself prime minister might undermine his legitimacy. As Giga Bokeria, one of his closest aides, says, “no government in Georgia can maintain power without public support”.
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Permanent Mission of Georgia to the United Nations
New York, NY
May 30, 2011
Georgia and the Republic of Niger signed a joint protocol on the establishment of diplomatic relations today.
Permanent Mission of Georgia to the United Nations
New York, NY
May 9, 2011
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