Out in the Street, Out of Power
Will the August war give Georgia’s fractious opposition a fighting chance to gain power? by Lili Di Puppo 10 November 2008
TBILISI | On 7 November 2007 opposition parties in Georgia gathered thousands of people in the streets of Tbilisi in a protest against the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
On Friday, one year later, they did it again. But this time their numbers were considerably smaller, perhaps testimony to people’s exhaustion and disillusionment after a tumultuous year.
It’s not clear what position the opposition parties occupy in the public consciousness, however, and it’s not clear if they can use the failed war any more effectively than they used charges of authoritarianism and corruption against the government last year.
While Saakashvili’s international reputation suffered a severe blow after the August war, with foreign commentators and the Russian leadership predicting that he would not survive the conflict politically, the repercussions on the domestic political scene are still uncertain. The war provided a new ground for the opposition to criticize the government, but the question is how successfully it can exploit this new source of popular discontent.
Opponents of Saakashvili clearly see an opening. On 27 October, former Parliament Speaker and one-time Saakashvili ally Nino Burjanadze
announced that she was establishing a new political party. Former Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli is expected to do the same soon.
David Aprasidze, chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi, sees the emergence of these new political players as one major consequence of the August war. It has prompted both politicians to enter politics now rather than in spring, when some would like to see early parliamentary elections.
With the emergence of new political forces, the challenge for the opposition in the coming weeks will be to overcome party and individual interests and push for common objectives.
“If the opposition has learned lessons, then it really has to unite,” said Archil Gegeshidze, a fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.
The opposition in Georgia is a heterogeneous and loose coalition of parties and personalities ranging from the far right to the far left. It has typically unified around the objective of getting rid of Saakashvili’s government rather than a substantial political program. This heterogeneity has prevented it from effectively mobilizing social dissatisfaction with the current government.
In parliamentary elections held in May, Saakashvili’s National Movement Party took 60 percent of the vote, giving it 119 of the legislature’s 150 seats. A nine-party opposition coalition managed only about 18 percent of the vote and was disbanded shortly afterward.
While this coalition could reemerge, it’s not clear if former government members such as Burjanadze, who left office in June, and Nogaideli will be part of it. Kakha Kukava, a member of parliament from the Conservative Party, rejected the idea, citing Burjanadze’s role in the government last year when police used force against the protesters and officials subsequently declared a state of emergency.
“She was responsible for and an active player during the events of 7 November,” Kukava said. “We cannot consider her a democratic leader. We can cooperate, but not within a coalition.”
Still, one major reason for the opposition parties to seek unity in the following weeks is to push for early parliamentary elections in the spring. Media freedom
is also high on the agenda. “Imedi TV was widely used by the opposition to mobilize people. This time the media is controlled,” Gegeshidze said, referring to the television station that was famously invaded by riot police and shut down by the government during last year’s protests.
WAR AND POPULISM
After a show of unity around Saakashvili in August, opposition parties have started to openly question his decision to launch a military offensive and the management of the crisis.
Both Kukava and former foreign minister and opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili criticized the decision to go to war, arguing that everybody knew that Georgia stood no chance of winning a war against Russia.
Tina Khidasheli from the Republican Party sees the August events as a logical end in a series of misguided steps taken by the government in the last years. “The 7th of August is the result of the 7th of November and other irrational and reckless steps made by Saakashvili while in power. … He makes easy decisions for the solution of complicated issues.”
Zurabishvili emphasized the need to focus on the economic and democratic development of the country. “Without democracy the same causes will produce the same effects. And I am not absolutely convinced that we are not headed for another confrontation.”
Aprasidze, of the Caucasus Institute, fears that the political discussion on the war will remain superficial, focusing more on why Georgia lost than on the circumstances that led to the debacle. He said the opposition has little chance to score if the political discourse in the country does not change. “If this discourse remains very populist, very white-and-black, in that Saakashvili is much better.”
The absence of free media has also prevented a public debate on the August war. “You need a liberalized media to ask these questions,” Gegeshidze said.
One huge question is whether Georgian society has matured enough after the August events to reject the promise of quick solutions to the territorial integrity of the country.
Gegeshidze believes that this issue will decide the kind of discourse politicians will use. “If Georgian society has matured, then there will no longer be any populist promises of the unification of Georgia in the foreseeable future. If Georgian society still remains immature, then the politicians will sense this and will again use this populist language in their campaigning.”
The restoration of territorial integrity broken when South Ossetia and Abkhazia split away in the early 1990s was one of the Saakashvili government’s major promises after the Rose Revolution. “Saakashvili tried to occupy the ground from where the opposition could attack the government,” Aprasidze said.
The president’s mistake was not to focus on the issue of territorial integrity, but to raise false expectations in the Georgian population of a quick solution to the conflicts, Gegeshidze said.
Aprasidze hopes that the war has removed the political dilemma faced by the country since the Rose Revolution. “Since 2004 we’ve always had this kind of dilemma: on one side there is territorial integrity and on the other side the European way, the modernization of the country.” He added, “Now there is no dilemma. And I hope that nobody will come back to that question and say, ‘I am the right guy to restore the territorial integrity.’ ”
This trend toward populist rhetoric, along with the lack of a political alternative, has been key to Saakashvili’s firm grip on power since the Rose Revolution. The main challenge for the opposition will be to convince the Georgian population that this alternative exists.
Zurabishvili reflected on the apprehension of Georgian citizens regarding a change of leadership, “Since we have been going through very, very difficult times, the question is how we can trust that it is going to be better with you. And that’s where we have to give the answers.”