Opposition demos test Georgia's democratic progress

14th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Perched on the outer edge of Europe, Georgia has long sought to cast off its image from the 1990s of a post-Soviet basket-case wracked by political instability.

Tbilisi -- Georgia's hopes of being seen as a modern, European-style democracy are being put to the test by a vigorous opposition campaign to oust President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied in the capital Tbilisi this week to demand Saakashvili's resignation and while the number of protesters dwindled over the weekend, organisers are vowing a long struggle.

Perched on the outer edge of Europe, Georgia has long sought to cast off its image from the 1990s of a post-Soviet basket-case wracked by political instability.

Since coming to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has taken countless steps to Europeanise his country, from flying the European flag outside government buildings to installing Parisian-style newspaper kiosks and street lamps in the capital.

While admitting that much remains to be done, Saakashvili says he has set his country on the path to becoming a full-fledged democracy by tackling corruption and strengthening state institutions.

But opponents accuse Saakashvili of betraying the values of the Rose Revolution by persecuting political opponents, stifling the media and concentrating power in a tight inner circle.

They see a November 2007 crackdown when riot police dispersed thousands of anti-government protesters as evidence of Saakashvili's autocratic bent.

After he led Georgia to defeat in a brief war with Russia last year, opponents say Saakashvili must step down and have vowed a long campaign of protests and civil disobedience.

The authorities are keen to portray the protests -- and their tolerance of them -- as proof that Georgia is maturing as a democracy.

"By demonstrating peacefully -- by the complete and total lack of violence, by ensuring the right to free movement and freedom of assembly -- we proved the maturity of our state and our democracy," Saakashvili said Friday.

"The world was watching and we proved once again that Georgia is a European democracy."

But critics say to be truly democratic the authorities must do more than tolerate the opposition -- they must engage with it.

"The president needs to be willing to listen to his own people, to learn the mistakes of the past and be respectful to their demands," said Irakli Alasania, a former Georgian ambassador to the United Nations who broke with Saakashvili after the war.

Saakashvili has offered talks on some issues, including making city mayors directly elected, but the opposition says no real changes are on the table.

Authorities accuse the opposition of itself being undemocratic by refusing dialogue and being too rigid in its demand for Saakashvili to resign.

Protesters have booed when talks with the authorities have been mooted and opposition leaders admit there is little appetite for dialogue from the crowd.

"People will say that if you have any kind of dialogue this means you betrayed us," said opposition leader Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of the parliament.

"We have to discuss how to solve this issue in a peaceful way."

With neither side willing to budge, a protracted political battle is likely.

Burjanadze said Sunday that protesters were ready to continue for weeks if necessary and that the opposition would over the next week expand a civil disobedience campaign that has already been paralysing rush-hour traffic in Tbilisi every day.

Analysts say this will test the patience of both the government and opposition, raising the chances of violence and a setback for Georgian democracy.

"With their current scale the protests pose no serious threat to Saakashvili's authority, at least in the short-term. But if we take a good look at the last two years, it's clear that the opposition has a significant number of supporters and can continue to put pressure on the authorities," political analyst Gia Nodia said.

"So dialogue, some kind of agreement, is necessary to avoid long-term instability."


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