GEORGIA’S MOMENT OF TRUTH
Can the coming election put the country of the Rose Revolution back on its democratic path? BY PAUL WELLS
There are richer capitals in the world than Tbilisi, Georgia’s grimy and bustling main city, and poorer ones too. But there can’t be many where the tired and heartsick past is so thoroughly intermixed with the tantalizing hope of a prosperous future. Old women in shawls sell fruit and beer for pennies at folding card tables across the street from immense new luxury hotels. Teams of young men push broken-down Soviet-era jalopies past sprawling construction sites for glistening new condominiums, The snap presidential election Georgians face on Jan. 5 has some of the same schizophrenic appeal. Voting for the good guys might keep Georgia climbing from chaos toward good times and international respectability. Bad choices or bad luck could lead to further heartbreak—or even to an unwinnable
proxy war with the resurgent and deeply belligerent Russian neighbour to the north.
So the stakes in this election are high. If only it were easier to figure out who the good guys are anymore.
It officially became impossible to distinguish black hats from white when Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s dark-haired and dashing young president, sent riot police with tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets to clear Rustaveli Avenue of anti-government protesters on Nov. 7More than 500 were hospitalized. The surprise wasn’t the sight of muscle and hardware punctuating a political debate. That is all too common in the former Soviet Union. What was surprising was that it was happening in a country where democracy was already supposed to have won.
Memories of Georgia’s late-2003 “Rose
Revolution,” when tens of thousands of prodemocracy protesters forced the resignation of the tired and corrupt post-Soviet president Eduard Shevardnadze, are hazy in Canada because Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” happened so soon after. Ukraine is bigger than Georgia. It is closer to the major European powers. And it is the ancestral homeland of far more Canadians than Georgia, a mountainous country of 4.6 million, about the size of New Brunswick, wedged on the east coast of the Black Sea between Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia. But Georgia seemed at the time to be an even more spectacular success for the largely U.S.-funded network of pro-democracy groups that had won almost bloodless victories across Eastern Europe.
Saakashvili earned law degrees at Columbia University and went on to George Washington University on a State Department fellowship. He has better connections in Washington than most western European leaders. He quit the Shevardnadze government in disgust over the old man’s refusal to
clean up corruption. And when he won 96 per cent of the vote to become Europe’s youngest president in January 2004, weeks after his 36th birthday, he moved fast to implement a radically pro-Western agenda: market reforms, tax cuts, and ardent lobbying for membership in the EU and NATO.
“It was a government with some successes in a number of areas,” Giorgi Chkheidze told Maclean’s in a recent interview. Chkheidze is the earnest, soft-spoken chairman of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, one of the oldest and most influential pro-democracy organizations in the country. And many would say his description of the Saakashvili government’s success, at least in economics, understates things considerably.
The World Bank issues an annual report called “Doing Business” that ranks countries according to how inexpensive, secure, and unencumbered by red tape they are. When Saakashvili took office, Georgia ranked 122nd in the world. In the most recent report it ranks 18th, ahead of Germany. No country on earth has cut taxes, bureaucratic barriers and corruption nearly as quickly. The payoff has been awesome: 9-5 per cent average annual growth for the past two years; foreign direct investment increasing 154 per cent from 2005 to 2006 before reaching $3 billion this year; a banking sector that grew by 40 per cent in 2006. Airlines rushing to announce direct flights from Old European capitals. Hyatt, Kempinski, InterContinental and Radisson SAS hotels sprouting like fabulous marbletiled mushrooms in downtown Tbilisi.
So what was the protesters’ problem? Only that in his rush to snap Georgia out of economic doldrums, Saakashvili has too rarely paused for democratic propriety.
“Their view was that democratic procedures and rule-of-law concerns take too much time,” Davit Usupashvili, another long-time pro-democracy activist, told Maclean’s. Usupashvili has known Saakashvili since 1993. They followed parallel paths, trying to reform successive governments from within before bringing Shevardnadze down from the outside. “Our political friendship continued until June of 2004,” Usupashvili says now.
But Usupashvili left to resume his role as an outside gadfly, and today he campaigns for one of the six opposition candidates who are competing, without much hope, to win the presidency from Saakashvili. “What good are market reforms without independent courts?” he asks. “What good are market reforms without free media?”
Almost as soon as Saakashvili took power, outside observers started to remark he was in such a rush to implement change he wasn’t pausing to listen to critics or to install durable institutions. The new government’s
“greatest weakness,” political scientist Ghia Nodia said in a 2005 interview, was its “strong revolutionary spirit... They understand that institutions are important, but that’s not their culture in a way.”
It was this headlong rush to overhaul the state that led Saakashvili to overstep his authority time and again this autumn. When it was over he had unleashed scenes of brutality eerily similar to those produced by the very post-Communist tyrants he had spent his life combatting. And European and American friends of democracy, whom Saakashvili believed were therefore his friends too, had become some of his most visible critics.
It all began with explosive accusations from yet another disillusioned ally. Irakli Okruashvili was Saakashvili’s defence minister, even younger, more handsome, and nearly as popular. He was always picking fights with Russia, the former Soviet-era occupier turned rival for regional influence. Okruashvili
IN HIS HEADLONG RUSH TO MARKET REFORM, HE OVER STEPPED HIS AUTHORITY
expressed wonder at a Russian trade embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water. Left to their own devices, he said, Russians would eat anything: “Even if you export—excuse the expression—feces to Russia it can be sold there.” Some saw him as Saakashvili’s most formidable long-term competitor.
In November 2006, Okruashvili quit the Saakashvili government. On Sept. 25 of this year he announced he was forming a new opposition political party, and uncorked a
succession of astonishing accusations. Saakashvili, he claimed, had had a former prime minister murdered (carbon monoxide poisoning was the official explanation), and had taken out a contract to eliminate Arkadi “Badri” Patarkatsishvili, a flamboyant billionaire media baron who has been one of Saakashvili’s most relentless critics.
Two days later, Okruashvili was arrested on charges of extortion, money laundering and abuse of office while at Defence. One Western diplomat who was in town through it all calls it a typically ambiguous Tbilisi moment: the charges against Okruashvili were, on their face, more credible than his own lurid accusations against Saakashvili. But by arresting his old ally many months after the supposed offences, and mere days after Okruashvili launched a new party, the president made it seem that the only offence he really couldn’t tolerate was political opposition.
The street protests—peaceful, massive and, according to observers, plainly spontaneous— started the next day outside Georgia’s parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue. The protesters rallied again on Nov. 2, organized this time by the National Council of Unified Public Movement, a coalition of opposition parties. According to some reports, Badri Patarkatsishvili, the opposition media tycoon, bankrolled the protest.
This time the protesters didn’t go home. Several of them camped out night after night, first calling for parliamentary elections to be moved up, then demanding Saakashvili’s resignation as president. Once again he responded drastically to a direct attack on his right to govern. On the morning of Nov. 7, Georgian security forces cleared the street with water cannons and tear gas. Journalists were severely beaten. So was Sozar Subari, the public defender, or ombudsman.
Saakashvili went on television to declare a state of emergency. The protests were no mere display of political opposition, he said. They represented a Russian coup attempt. “High-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this,” he said. “An alternative government has already been set up in Moscow.” A few Russian diplomats in Tbilisi were expelled. Soon the government would release audiotapes of conversations between the diplomats and figures in the Georgian opposition. Observers who’ve heard the tapes say the meaning of the conversations is highly ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Over dinner that night in a Tbilisi restaurant, several Western diplomats remarked that they could never have expected such an extreme reaction to peaceful, if dogged, protest. This would hurt Georgia’s sterling international reputation, they said. Then word arrived that government security forces had
invaded the headquarters of Imedi Television, ransacked its offices, and forced staffers to lie on the ground while the station was taken off the air. “As soon as we heard about Imedi, the dinner stopped,” one participant said. “This was taking it to a new level.”
The next day, Nov. 8, Saakashvili announced a presidential election forjan. 5, months earlier than originally scheduled. He also announced a concurrent referendum on the timing of parliamentary elections—spring 2008 as opposition leaders had demanded, or fall 2008 as originally scheduled. For a president lately given to massive reprisals, this was a relatively subtle sleight of hand. The protesters had asked for early parliamentary elections because they could reasonably hope to chip away at Saakahsvili’s parliamentary majority and damage his hegemony over the country’s politics. Instead, he put the direct presidential election first. If they do not defeat him outright, his opponents will have nothing to show for the months of strife. And many say he is carefully stacking the deck to ensure he cannot lose.
It is important to note here that in singling out the Russians and Imedi for particular suspicion, Saakashvili was not being entirely paranoid. Imedi’s founder and majority shareholder is the same Badri Patarkatsishvili who paid the bills for the protesters. This year he brought Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the same company that owns Fox News, in as a shareholder. Several Georgians and foreign residents told Maclean’s that Imedi makes not the slightest pretense of objectivity in its constant harangues against the Saakashvili government. Patarkatsishvili has often said he would spend down to his last tetri (a little more than half a Canadian penny) to bring down the “fascist” Saakashvili regime.
As for the Russians, they do play hardball. Vladimir Putin’s regime is highly displeased that a former Soviet republic, whose sons Joseph Stalin and Shevardnadze played key roles in the empire’s birth and dismemberment, is today so overtly courted by Washington, Brussels and Wall Street. “I think Russia is trying to make life difficult for Georgia in every way it can,” a member of one foreign pro-democracy NGO said.
And there are a lot of ways. Transparently political boycotts of Georgian goods are barely the beginning. The real powder kegs are in two breakaway Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both have substantial nonGeorgian populations, including Russians. Both have sought to secede from Georgia, and while Georgia today exercises no effective control over their territory, no foreign power has recognized them. Which means that the most pressing international-relations challenge for Georgia is that nobody is quite sure
how to draw it on a map. Historically, such questions are rarely settled without bloodshed. And the Russians are making as much mischief in the two regions as they can.
Russia has provided passports to everyone in South Ossetia and Abkhazia who asked for one. Voting in both regions was widespread during the Dec. 2 Russian elections, yet nobody in either area will vote in Georgia’s election. And on the day after the Russian elections, the speaker of that country’s lower house of parliament, Boris Gryzlov, said parliamentarians would debate annexing South Ossetia and Abkhazia early in the new year.
Shalva Pichkhadze is chairman of the organization Georgia For NATO. He has been
FOR SAAKASHVIL.I, RUSSIA IS THREAT NO.1: ECONOMICALLY AND MILITARILY
hoping that at the next NATO summit, the military alliance will deliver a formal “road map” for membership to Georgia. (Like so many prominent Georgians, he is now campaigning for one of Saakashvili’s opponents.) “When Georgians are asked why they want to join NATO, they say without hesitation that NATO is a defence against Russia,” Pichkhadze said. “Russia is threat No. 1, both militarily and economically.”
FOR MOST OF the 20th century, of course, Georgians helped to run Russia and its sprawling Communist empire. There is perhaps no better illustration of the ambivalence and bitterness in that relationship than the sur-
real museum in honour of Joseph Stalin in the dictator’s birthplace, Gori.
On a recent weekday morning, a Maclean’s reporter hired a cab for the 90-minute drive along mountain roads to Gori, where the huge museum and a park in front of it are the centerpiece of the municipal geography. The arrival of an English-speaking visitor caused a brief commotion; the museum has almost no visitors and it took several minutes to find a guide who could speak English. Finally a woman who introduced herself as “Kate” showed up and led a tour through the museum and its two outdoor annexes: Stalin’s reconstructed birth home and the rail car he rode to the 1945 Yalta Conference.
Nothing in the museum exhibit has changed since 1979, Kate said. Stalin is portrayed as a family man, a keen student who showed early promise as a poet, a recipient of gifts from around the world, a concerned father. There is no reference to the millions who died when the Soviets annexed their countries or in the murderous work camps of the gulag. It is like visiting a Charlie Parker museum that nowhere mentions saxophones.
The temperature inside the museum, lit only by sunlight from outside, was arctic. Kate asked her visitor whether Canadian winters are cold. “We have had no electricity here for 15 years,” she said. “I hate winter.”
The post-Soviet Georgian governments have tolerated a shrine to Stalin and its genteel fictions. But they will not pay to heat it.
Saakashvili must have thought that any attempt to build a thriving market economy in Stalinism’s birthplace, under the baleful glare of Stalin’s Russian heirs, would be able to count on steadfast Western allies no matter which corners he cut. The surprise for him was to learn that for Georgia’s democratic allies, means cannot always be sacrificed for ends. The day after Saakashvili announced the election, the U.S. State Department’s man in the Caucasus, Matthew Bryza, said that wasn’t enough: Georgia must also lift the state of emergency and let Imedi back on the air. Journalist Adam Michnik, a prodemocracy hero in Poland since the 1960s, visited Tbilisi and said if Imedi didn’t go back on the air within a week the election could not be considered free and fair. (It finally did, 10 days later.) Mart Laar, the former Estonian prime minister who had personally advised Saakashvili on economic reform, wrote with obvious regret that the Georgian government “overreacted and made mistakes.”
So it was a chastened Nino Burjanadze who greeted a visiting reporter in her office in Georgia’s parliament building soon after Michnik’s visit. Burjanadze is a long-time
Saakashvili ally who is pausing from her duties as parliamentary speaker to act as interim president while he runs for re-election.
Like others in the current government, Burjanadze has learned quickly to soft-pedal the allegations of Russian plotting and to admit fallibility. “Of course we are not a very strong democracy because we are a young democracy, a democracy in transition, and we have sometimes made mistakes,” she said. “But we are on the right track.”
She was busy telephoning speakers of European parliaments—Swedish, Belgian, Hungarian—urging them to send election observers. Does she think opposition parties share her concern for democracy? “Some of them. But part of them—I don’t know whose game they’re playing, but part of these people don’t want stability in Georgia.”
Burjanadze’s office is decorated with photos of herself and various dignitaries from the old democracies—Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush, Colin Powell. Was she surprised to have to sit through lessons in democracy from the State Department and Adam Michnik? “I was not surprised because, you know, even for some of our very good friends, sometimes it’s not easy to understand realities which are going on in new democracies.”
As she talked, Burjanadze made it clear that for the embattled incumbent regime in Georgia, everything comes down to winning against feckless internal meddlers and—even more important—Russian saboteurs. She was furious at Gryzlov, the Russian parliamentarian, for planning a new year annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “It will be absolutely unacceptable to us,” she said. Would it constitute an act of war? Would Georgia respond in kind? “It’s an act of war from the Russian side,” she said. “We will try to do our best not to react provocatively. But it will put us in a very, very difficult situation.”
This is the risk Georgia faces: still more
blood in a country that has seen too much. Against that very real fear, there is equally real hope. Georgia could yet be a beacon of progress and democracy for a half-dozen neighbours that could use a good example. It could help lead one of the world’s roughest neighbourhoods toward the light. If only its own leaders don’t forget why they got into the democracy game in the first place.
Non-partisan observers have signalled countless examples of the Saakashvili camp using “administrative means”—bestowing the special favours only governments can provide—in the heat of an election campaign. Saakashvili has left a brand-new prime minister, Vladimer “Lado” Gurgenidze, to run things. Gurgenidze has given Georgia’s government an ostentatious social conscience after years of fiscal austerity, and it has translated into massive social spending on pensions, skills training and jobless benefits, none of it planned in budgets only a few months ago. Vouchers for consumer goods are landing on Georgians’ doorsteps, all bearing the stamp, “A Gift From the President.” Burjanadze sees no problem with this: “It was a gift from the president.”
The bigger picture, she told her visitor, is that Saakashvili simply cannot lose. “I think Georgia as a success story is dangerous for Russia: that democracy is possible in the former Soviet space. If Saakashvili will lose, it means Russia will say to everybody, ‘Look. Georgia was trying to fight democratically with Russia but they failed.’ ”
The argument has momentary plausibility. But on even cursory inspection, it sounds like what Saakashvili’s embittered former allies have been saying all along: that the regime has defined its own survival as the nation’s paramount value. It is not a new argument in the former Soviet Union. In fact it is wearily familiar, because it predates the fragile blooming of democracy by many decades. M