Georgia's Cycle of Violence Reflects Dysfunctional Politics
Brian Whitmore, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Pati Managadze was delighted to learn that her son Demur was in jail. For nearly a week Managadze had searched for the 21-year-old, who had gone missing following violent clashes between police and antigovernment demonstrators in downtown Tbilisi on the night of May 25-26. She feared the worst when Demur's name did not appear on the police list of those who had been detained. After searching the city's police precincts for days, Managadze finally got lucky.
"I had been looking for my son for six days, since May 25, and was finally able to find him," she says. "I went to Tbilisi's main city court, and that's where I was told that he had been arrested and had been sentenced to two-months' [pretrial] detention.
"As long as I learned he was alive, I didn't care about anything else. I was so immensely happy to hear the news. I don't think you can find another mother in this world who would be happy to learn about her son's arrest."
Managadze's case is not isolated. Human rights groups and other NGOs estimate that as many as 50 people remain missing in the wake of last month's violence in the heart of the Georgian capital. Police officials insist that there are no missing persons and that everyone is accounted for.
Same Old Ways?
The dispute over the missing is just one lingering controversy from the violence in Tbilisi late last month, in which rights groups accused police of using excessive force and the government of stonewalling an investigation.
The May upheaval and its aftermath is a microcosm of much that is dysfunctional in Georgian politics, analysts say. For two decades the country's main political battles have been fought out on the streets while parliament, the courts, the media, and other institutions essential for a functioning democracy remain weak and underdeveloped.
"It is like we have been in the same place for 20 years -- violence, victims, violence, victims, mourning," says Irakli Alasania, Georgia's former ambassador to the United Nations and leader of the opposition Our Georgia-Free Democrats -- which did not take part in the protests and instead has been trying to engage the government in negotiations. "This is the old-style Georgian politics that is continuing."
He adds: "This encapsulates what is wrong with us for the past 20 years. This is the wrong way of doing politics."
Throughout the five days of protests, opposition leaders like Nino Burjanadze demanded nothing less than the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili. They also appeared intent on provoking violence, inciting their loyalists to attack police with sticks and metal pipes.
For their part, police have been widely accused of using disproportionate force to disperse the demonstrators -- even after the more violent elements had been subdued -- firing water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas into the crowd indiscriminately and severely beating protesters and even some journalists.
Ghia Nodia, a professor of political science at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, says all sides came out looking bad.
"The result of all this was a complete discrediting of the opposition's radical wing," Nodia says. "It's difficult to predict the future, but we should not expect new attempts to change the government through the mobilization of popular anger. Can we then assume that the Saakashvili government won? I wouldn't be sure about this either."
He concedes that "it is hard to doubt the legitimacy of the decision to disperse the demonstrations," but adds, "The way in which this was done will not help the government's popularity. Why did the police need to beat those who were not even resisting?"
Georgian authorities say two people died in the clashes. A policeman and a former police officer, who was among the protesters, were killed when a motorcade belonging to the opposition recklessly sped away from the violence.
But in a chilling discovery, two men were found electrocuted to death atop a kiosk near the protest site with their hands bound behind their backs. Police say they are investigating the deaths but have not confirmed that they were linked to the clashes.
Takin' It To The Streets
Periodic street violence has been endemic in Georgia since it won independence from the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago. The country has had three presidents since the collapse of the USSR, but has never had power transferred peacefully from one to the next through an election.
"Certainly the issue in Georgia for the past 20-plus years has been that the main theater of events has been Rustaveli Avenue in the middle of Tbilisi," says Thomas de Waal, a South Caucasus specialist at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. "It's not been the parliament or even TV. It's been street protests."
The political violence in Georgia commenced almost immediately upon independence.
In the fall and winter of 1991, downtown Tbilisi resembled a war zone as armed militias forced the country's first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, into exile.
Periodic clashes continued between Gamsakhurdia's supporters and pro-government paramilitary groups in 1992-93. Eduard Shevardnadze, Gamsakhurdia's successor as president, survived three assassination attempts.
The pro-Western Rose Revolution in November 2003, which forced Shevardnadze from power and led to Saakashvili's election as president, was supposed to end the street fighting and usher in a new democratic era in Georgia in which differences were worked out at the ballot box and in parliament.
But critics say Saakashvili soon alienated many of his Rose Revolution allies as he began concentrating power in his own hands, shutting out opposition voices and relying on a close clique of advisers -- particularly his Interior Minister, Vano Merabishvili.
Two of the reasons that political differences tend to spill onto the streets are that Georgia's parliament is dominated by Saakashvili's United National Movement and opposition forces claim elections have become a sham. Moreover, there is widespread suspicion that Saakashvili will try to retain power when his final term as president expires in 2013 by becoming prime minister. Saakashvili strenuously denies that this is the case.
Plots And Plans
Lincoln Mitchell, a professor of international politics at Columbia University in New York and author of "Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy And Georgia's Rose Revolution," says it's clear to him that "this government is committed to a strong state and they are committed to a strong business environment far more than they are to democracy."
"This has been true for a number of years in Georgia and it remains clear," Mitchell says. "And that will be an obstacle not just to integration with Europe, but it will ultimately create an obstacle in the U.S. relationship."
In November 2007, police violently broke up antigovernment protests in central Tbilisi, sparking widespread international condemnation.
The latest round of protests began on May 21 when Burjanadze, a former Rose Revolution ally of Saakashvili who became a bitter rival, initiated street protests that she said would lead to a "revolutionary" end to his presidency.
The authorities granted the protesters a permit to stage demonstrations on Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi until midnight on May 25, when they would have to disperse to make way for a military parade marking Georgian independence day on May 26. The authorities offered the demonstrators centrally located alternative venues where they could continue their protest, but Burjanadze declined the offer.
The violence commenced when protesters refused to disperse and when groups of them assaulted police with sticks, sparking brutal reprisals. Even after the violent elements were subdued, police continued attacking demonstrators trying to flee the melee and journalists attempting to cover the story.
Saakashvili's government, for its part, says the demonstrations were part of a Russian-backed plan to overthrow him.
Burjanadze has indeed traveled to Moscow numerous times and met Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as has another opposition leader, Zurab Nogaideli.
But as much as Putin would like to overthrow Saakashvili, analysts say his ability to do so is negligible at best.
"Russia has such a bad reputation in Georgia at the moment. They have very limited leverage in Georgian politics," De Waal says. "They can try things -- an incident here, some money there -- but to say that they can have a big impact on the political scene is highly dubious."
No Quick Fix
With the images of both Saakashvili's government and opposition radicals taking a severe hit, the moderate wing of the opposition now has a chance to advance its agenda.
"I think that with this tragedy also comes an opening," says the opposition's Alasania. "Georgian people are sick and tired of this old-style politics. I think there is an opportunity for those of us who are trying to bring a new kind of political culture -- that your political opponent is not your blood enemy; that you can listen to each other and from time to time you can agree."
A group of eight opposition parties who have shunned street protests -- including Alasania's Our Georgia-Free Democrats, the New Rightists, the Republicans and others -- have been seeking reforms to the electoral system to make the next parliament more representative.
Negotiations have been ongoing. But thus far, the government has been unwilling to agree to reforms that would lead to the ruling party losing control of parliament.
De Waal argues that as long as the government refuses to admit any mistakes or broker any criticism, any breakthrough will remain elusive.
"For a cathartic moment you need a sense of self-blame on both sides rather than just blaming the other: 'We're doing something wrong and we need to fix this,'" he says. "Georgian politics is very emotional. The language is very extreme. I don't, unfortunately, see a cathartic moment coming."
Mzia Paresishvili, David Chaganava, and Salome Asatiani of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.
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