Warm Up Acts

On April 9, 1989, Soviet troops put down a demonstration in Tbilisi calling for the restoration of Georgian independence. As Thomas Goltz puts it in Georgia Diary:

This time, however, the local garrison of Soviet army conscripts usually called upon to maintain order was replaced by paratroopers, and when they moved against the sea of unarmed protestors, their weapons of choice and coercion were shovels. Nineteen protestors were bludgeoned to death, and many more seriously injured.

For the 20th anniversary, the opposition is making a substantial push to oust president Sakaashvili, whose term would otherwise run through 2013.

In general, transition countries are better served if governments and high officials are only turned out of office by legal and constitutional means. It took the Slovaks some time to get rid of Meciar, and the Romanians to get rid of Iliescu, but their institutions are stronger for having done so within the regular framework of the state.

On the other hand, the war with Russia last year was a colossal blunder on the part of Saakashvili’s government, the kind that would bring down a leader in a purely parliamentary system. Further, more post-communist states started out with reasonably strong presidencies than ended up with them. Poland, for example, initially gave the president strong powers and in particular the right of co-determination of crucial ministries such as defense and foreign affairs. (This led to several crises during Lech Walesa’s time in office.) In general, the trend across Central and Eastern Europe has been for increasingly assertive parliaments to erode the powers of the presidents. That tendency would also argue for parliament to work on sidelining Saakashvili.

The president and his allies, who still command a majority in parliament, are not about to stand down. And the opposition is working to heat things up. I’m skeptical that Georgia will see a change of government in the next month, but the political temperature is definitely rising.

Good local coverage in English is at Civil.ge. [Update: Their site does not seem to play nicely with Firefox.]

[[My comments in brackets.]]

9 in Opposition Party Arrested in Georgia
Bloc Plans Protest Against President April 9

By Sarah Marcus
[[I may have met her here in Tbilisi; kudos to the Post for getting the story independently and not relying on wire services.]]
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 24, 2009; A08

TBILISI, Georgia, March 23 — The Georgian government arrested nine members of a leading opposition party on gun charges Monday as tensions mounted ahead of widely anticipated protests next month demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Nino Burjanadze, leader of the opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia party and a former ally of Saakashvili, said the charges were fabricated and part of a “campaign of terror” by the U.S.-backed government to discredit its critics. [[It’s not unlikely that the charges are a bit shaky, and that they’re something like preventive detention. Georgian politics can be a rough business. On the other hand, the story of the boy who cried wolf must not be a part of the folklore here, because the opposition is constantly calling government actions part of a campaign of terror. Overheated rhetoric is par for the course; adjust your assessments accordingly.]]

But an Interior Ministry spokesman, Shota Utiashvili, said the arrests were the result of a routine undercover investigation into illegal arms dealing. [[“Routine” seems unlikely, though given the amount of weapons in the country, there is bound to be plenty of illegal dealing, and would-be plotters may well have a hand in it.]] He denied that police had targeted the opposition [[ha!]] and said investigators were unaware of the political views of the suspects [[double ha!]] before they were detained.

“These arrests have no political connotations at all. All we are doing is trying to prevent violence,” Utiashvili said, adding that the government decided to make a statement only after the case had become “extremely politicized” by the opposition. Ten people were arrested, he said, including one who was not a party member. [[Nine out of ten are connected to the opposition, but the arrests have no political connotations. Not very likely.]]

The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi declined to comment. [[They never do, but the reporter has to ask, in a strictly pro forma way.]]

The arrests, some of which took place at the offices of Burjanadze’s party, come just over two weeks before Georgia’s main opposition parties plan mass demonstrations calling on Saakashvili to resign.

The opposition has accused Saakashvili of monopolizing power and betraying the democratic ideals of the Rose Revolution [[both relatively true]], the 2003 street protests that swept him into office. A favorite of the [[ousted and unlamented]] Bush administration, the U.S.-educated lawyer has come under increased pressure since Georgia’s defeat in a war with Russia in August over two breakaway territories.

In remarks that opposition leaders say were an attempt to smear them ahead of the protests, Saakashvili said this month that “lots of money has become available in Georgian politics, from some sources, and not for good deeds.” [[Smearing is a time-honored political art. Especially in post-communist societies. Lots of muck to go around.]]

Burjanadze, a prominent leader of the Rose Revolution and former speaker of Parliament who broke with Saakashvili early last year, accused the government of spreading false rumors that Russia was financing the opposition. [[The government claims the mantle of the Georgian nation; of course it’s going to say that anyone opposed is a Russian stooge. The opposition needs better framing, not this kind of whining.]] She urged calm in response to the arrests but vowed to press ahead with the protest and other peaceful efforts to hold early elections.

“They decided to destroy this particular party just two weeks before April 9 because they understand that lots of people will come to the protests on that date,” she said at a news conference flanked by leaders of other opposition parties, who issued a joint statement condemning the arrests.

Among those backing Burjanadze at the news conference was Irakli Alasania, the former U.N. ambassador who quit Saakashvili’s government in December and has emerged as a leading figure in the opposition. He has been gathering signatures seeking a constitutional plebiscite on whether the president should resign. [[They need about 200,000 to get a referendum. Hard to say how that is coming along, but that would be a good follow-up story.]]

The Interior Ministry played about 20 minutes of video for reporters that purportedly shows the individuals arrested buying and selling automatic rifles. It is not clear from the footage how the suspects planned to use the guns, and Burjanadze said the film should be examined for possible falsification.

Utiashvili, the spokesman, said there had been three grenade attacks on police property in recent weeks, including one near Burjanadze’s party headquarters after a pro-opposition concert.

Giorgi Chkheidze, Georgia’s deputy human rights ombudsman, said he visited the detainees but was denied entry for 30 minutes without explanation. When he was allowed in, one of the accused told him he had been beaten during the arrest, Chkheidze said.

In an interview, Burjanadze also said her husband, Badri Bitsadze, had received a call from an Interior Ministry official warning him that he would be arrested if he did not leave Georgia for a month. She did not name the official. [[Plausible, but see also “crying wolf,” above.]]

Bitsadze resigned as head of the Georgian border police in October, alleging that a campaign was underway to discredit the border police with corruption charges because of his wife’s political views.

Burjanadze said her husband, who now leads a nongovernmental organization working on migration issues, would not leave the country and was ready to answer any accusations against him in court. [[Eventually the local politics gets Byzantine, especially when you consider that some of these families have been important in politics for generations. But on or around April 9, Georgia could get particularly interesting.]]