CAUCASUS BLOG: Saakashvili in trouble

By bne IntelliNews March 26, 2009

bne -

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in trouble. Not only is the opposition going to have another go at ousting him, starting with a mass rally in early April, but his western friends are abandoning him as more details of the Russo-Georgian war become available.

Opposition groups are planning to stage what will be closely watched rallies in Tbilisi on April 9. The last opposition rally in November 2007 ended as a PR fiasco for the president when he unleashed riot police who shot tear gas into the crowds, shredding Saakashvili's democratic credentials in the process.

Georgian authorities are revving up to dish out similar treatment this time round, says the opposition. The Georgian Interior Ministry has been buying, "special equipment and tear gas" ahead of the rally, which is, "intended to be used to dissolve opposition rallies," the opposition Georgian Republican Party leader and former Georgian State Security Minister Irakly Batiashvili was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Unleashing Interior Ministry troops on the crowds is the last thing Saakashvili should be doing this time, but tensions are growing and the tactics are already getting more heavy-handed.

Georgian police in arrested several opposition members on arms charges on March 23, in what their party leader said was a "campaign of terror." The Interior Ministry said 10 opposition party members were in possession of automatic weapons, including some "not very high-ranking" members of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party, which is led by ex-parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze. Two more activists of the opposition People's Movement for Georgia's Salvation were also arrested later the same day on suspicion of preparing an anti-government conspiracy, their lawyer Zaza Vashkmadze told reporters.

In 2007, the opposition was vocal, but didn't have the support of the majority of Georgians. More recently the opposition has been gaining some momentum as several high level politicians and former Saakashvili allies have united against the president; men and women like Burjanadze and former UN envoy Irakly Alasaniya, one of the most popular politicians in the country. The opposition can smell blood and are on the move as Saakashvili's support in the West is waning fast. "Some former allies of the president have changed sides and are attempting to oust him as his position has been weakened recently," says one senior western diplomat dealing with Georgian affairs.

As more intelligence from the eight-day Russo-Georgian war of last August comes in, Saakashvili's western allies have become increasing disillusioned and relations have cooled considerably. The problem is that Saakashvili's claim that he was reacting with force to a Russian attack has been shown up as a bald lie, according to bne sources in Brussels, which have seen the Nato intelligence reports.

For example, Georgian generals on the ground arriving in South Ossetia initially told local residents that they were there to "restore constitutional order," according to Nato reports, not that they were responding to Russian aggression. But the most damning evidence is that satellite pictures show that Russian tanks had not entered the strategically important Roki tunnel at the time of the Georgian offensive, according to an informed bne source. This is a particularly damning piece of evidence as the tunnel is one of the only entry points through the North Caucasus mountains into South Ossetia and Saakashvili specifically claimed only to have launched his attack after the Russian tanks had entered the tunnel, which would have been an undeniable prelude to any Russian offensive. The need to go through the Roki tunnel makes deciding who moved first pretty black and white.

The European Parliament has already concluded in a report following the conflict that Georgia was the perpetrator, but went on to condemn Russia for over-reacting with a disproportionate force, which is what caught the headlines at the time.

However, the European Commission has now also launched an investigation into the causes of the war that is not doing Saakashvili's reputation in Brussels any good. Likewise, bne sources in Washington say that following former president George W Bush's full support for Saakashvili, sentiment towards the Georgian president was already cooling before the arrival of the Barack Obama administration. Indeed, bne diplomatic sources that have seen a copy of the letter Obama sent to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently say the tone was very consolatory and phrased in terms of solving mutual problems.

With his international star in the wane, Saakashvili has become more vulnerable to attack domestically, as he has lost both money and prestige with the Ossetian adventure. In one of the more damaging thrusts, former Georgian prime minister Zurab Nogaideli claimed that Saakashvili had personally profited from the sale of the Imedia TV channel that was closed by the state on dubious grounds during the 2007 demonstrations. "I know for sure that Saakashvili and [Interior Minister Vano] Merabishvili are partners of the company [that bought the station]," Nogaideli said at a news conference on February 27. He went on to claim that Saakashvili had profited from several other business deals, including a $2bn arms deal.

How Saakashvili deals with the April 9 demonstration will be telling. He is clearly under pressure as he recently reshuffled the government, sacking several liberal reformers like PM Lado Gurgenidze and Kakha Bendukidze, who was responsible for transforming the Georgian economy into the success story it has been in the last few years. The president's heavy-handed use of the police in 2007, the closure of Imedia TV, and the recent spate of arrests already have commentators agreeing the president has failed to live up to the promise of the Rose Revolution. But more social unrest could end up with Saakashvili finding himself on the receiving end of a Coloured Revolution of his own.

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