Mass rallies to threaten Georgian president's rule

By bne IntelliNews April 9, 2009

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Tensions that have been running high in Tbilisi for months will come to a head April 9 as tens of thousands of protestors take to the streets in an effort to sweep President Mikheil Saakashvili from power, in a repeat of the "Rose Revolution" that propelled him into the job in the first place.

The demonstration will be a test of Saakashvili's commitment to democracy, a test he failed during similar demonstrations in November 2007, which were broken up with tear gas and baton-wielding riot police.

Residents in Tbilisi are nervous ahead of what could be a potentially violent clash. Opposition leaders say between 100,000 and 150,000 people will turn out to call for Saakashvili's resignation, who has become increasingly unpopular since the five-day Russo-Georgian war last August.

"These protests will not end in a few days, they will be long term and enduring," former foreign minister turned opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili told AFP. "People will come to the rally because they know that these authorities are not legitimate. There is only one possible demand for those who are destroying our country: they must resign."

Tensions have been driven higher in the run-up to today's march by sniping on both sides. In March, several opposition members were arrested by police for reportedly trying to buy arms and sedition charges were levelled at others. Four members of an opposition youth movement were also arrested on April 6 outside the Georgian Public Broadcasting headquarters, and several journalists have complained of intimidation by police in recent weeks.

The impact of the international crisis has only served to make the situation more precarious. Countries across the entire former communist bloc have been experiencing increased political turmoil, partly fuelled by the collapse of the global economy. In places like the Czech Republic the impact has been relatively mild and resulted in the fall the of government; in others it has been more dramatic.

Ukraine's political drama has turned into a farce as the relationship between "Orange Revolution" allies, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has descended into a public brawl. Even the normally docile Russians took to the streets in Vladivostok last month, before OMON Special Forces, flown in specially from Moscow, broke up a rally. In the Moldovan capital of Chisinau angry crowds trashed the parliament building in protest against the results of an election held at April 5.

In other countries in the region, presidents have chosen to tighten their grip rather than deal with the people. Four years after the "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan, President Kurmenbek Bakiyev has steered the country in an authoritarian direction, and numerous rallies are planned this spring in protest against Bakiyev's stranglehold on the political scene, rampant corruption and the mysterious death of presidential chief-of-staff Medet Sadyrkulov. Likewise, Azerbaijan voted through a controversial change to the constitution on March 18 that removes any limit on the number of terms incumbent President Ilham Aliyev can enjoy. And early hopes that new Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov would open the country up after he took over from dictator Saparmurat Niyazov have faded as he tightens his control over power and relaunches the personality cult that made his predecessor an international laughing stock.

As a result, the Georgian demonstration will be closely watched, as it provides a litmus test of which direction Georgia is likely to go in these difficult times.

Expectations downgraded

Opposition leaders are making a statement with the choice of April 9 for the rally - it also happens to be the 20th anniversary of anti-Soviet protests in Georgia, which were put violently quashed by Moscow, resulting in 20 deaths. However, Zurabishvili and other opposition leaders hope to repeat the peaceful 2003 revolution that ejected Eduard Schevadnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister and long-standing Georgian President, rather than those of November 2007 or April 1989.

While Saakashvili has done well on the economic front and opened the one-time the backward economy to investors and business, his shine has lost some of its lustre since last year. Many Georgians condemn the president for drawing Georgia into an unwinnable war against its enormous neighbour Russia last August.

At the same time, there is a growing rebellion amongst Georgia's political elite as increasing numbers of influential former allies of the president turn against him and join the opposition; notably, former Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjandize and former UN ambassador Irakly Alasania, have both joined the opposition and criticised Saakashvili for his increasingly authoritarian rule.

Ironically, Georgia is doing relatively well in the current crisis compared with its CIS peers, thanks to the large injection of war-repair funds provided by international donors before the worst of the crisis broke out in September. Saakashvili is also blamed for the lack of progress in fighting poverty.

However, it is hard to gauge the real level of dissatisfaction in the country and the size of the rally will be a telling indicator. Georgia does have a genuine opposition with genuine complaints, but this protest is unlikely to turn into yet another "Colour Revolution" that have swept the region in recent years.

"The March arrests of opposition figures in Georgia ratcheted up tensions between opposing political camps, and the focus is on the April 9 protests that will call for the president's resignation. The opposition remains divided and without a unifying leader, and we do not foresee any serious changes to the political landscape in the near term," says George Iremashvili, an analyst with Galt & Taggart in Tbilisi.

The opposition's attendance predictions for this week's rallies are most probably over-estimated. A rally it organised on November 7, 2008 to mark the previous year's post-election demonstrations, drew under one-third of the 30,000 participants expected. Even so, on the eve of the opening protest there are signs the government is getting nervous. Reports in the Georgian press say that rubber bullets and rubber batons have been imported from Ukraine to Georgia, and that several dozen Ukrainian commandos are arriving in Tbilisi to help disperse the rally, according to Interfax. The Georgian Interior Ministry declined to comment on the reports.

Ratings agencies are also expecting the worst. On April 7, Fitch Ratings warned of a possible downgrade, putting Georgia's long-term foreign and local currency issuer default ratings (IDRs) on rating watch negative. "Georgia needs to maintain the confidence of international investors and donors and can ill afford an increase in political unrest - a risk that has intensified with the opposition planning mass demonstrations starting on 9 April aimed at forcing President Mikheil Saakashvili from office," Edward Parker, head of Emerging Europe in Fitch's sovereigns team, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili has taken a more conciliatory line, at least in public, stressing the importance of dialogue between government and opposition. "The government and the opposition must hear and listen to each other, and it's important to drop the old practice of ignoring each other," he said during a visit to the Black Sea port of Poti. "We must talk even to the most radical sections of the opposition, however harsh or irreconcilable its demands might be... Georgia simply doesn't have any other alternative today." Nice if it's true.

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