by Jaba Devdariani, reposted from Transitions Online
Former allies now fight – literally – in parliament, evidence that Georgia’s political family is still too immature to cope with the huge imbalance in power created by the Rose Revolution.
Rows between spouses can emerge out of nowhere, following the tiniest of triggers. These brawls bring to the surface accumulated baggage of frustration with a vehemence that at times borders on resentment. That, or something like that, is what is now happening between Georgia’s ruling party and the most prominent members of the opposition, parties who, just two years ago, were partners in the Rose Revolution.
The tiny trigger in this bitter battle between former partners was – oddly, but as it turned out appropriately – a court ruling that consigned two wrestling champions charged with extortion to pre-trial detention. After the court’s decision on 30 June, disgruntled relatives and friends of the detainees rampaged through the courtroom, which was in the same building as Georgia’s Supreme Court. An angry mob then blocked traffic on Tbilisi’s main street, Rustaveli Avenue. The capital’s transport police struggled to restore traffic and the riot police were called in as the crowd ran amok. Dozens were briefly hauled away by the police, but around ten were taken into custody. No one was seriously injured (all accept that point), though some felt the force of the riot police’s batons.
This unpleasant but isolated incident has sent shockwaves through Georgian politics. All major TV stations broadcast the events live and most gave the floor to the opposition, seizing on the “excessive use of force” as an opportunity to attack the government. “A crime against humanity” was the evaluation of the incident by an opposition Republican Party leader Levan Berdzenishvili. Others even compared that the events to the bloodshed of 9 April 1989 when Soviet troops disbanded the peaceful pro-independence rally – an extreme comparison since 20 protestors, mostly women, were killed that day.
So everyone expected the rough and tumble on the streets to produce heated words on the floor of parliament the next day. What Georgians got, though, was even wilder than even the wildest expectations: a spontaneous, free-wheeling fist-fight that left MPs with cuts and bruises. The chief sparring partners were the former partners-in-revolution, the ruling National Movement party and the Republicans. In their more restrained moments, former friends and comrades from the revolution hurled insults at each other, the opposition accusing the ruling party of authoritarianism and the ruling party accusing the opposition of backing criminals.
So why all the fuss and fists? The easiest explanation would be to dismiss the incident as just another expression of Georgians’ hot temper. A fuller explanation of why the opposition is ready to jump into any void, real or imaginary, in an attempt to win the support of voters takes us back to the Rose Revolution and its impact.
WINNER TAKES ALL
All revolutions are radical. In Georgia’s case, the radicalism took a rather mild form, with massive public support gracefully, peacefully, and relatively painlessly easing President Eduard Shevardnadze out of office. Then, in the presidential elections, the same radicalism eased the leader of the revolution – Mikheil Saakashvili – and his National Movement into undivided power, with some 90 percent of the vote, a constitutional majority, and total dominance of local governments.
Such a concentration of power has both frustrated the opposition and ensured that much of Georgia’s politics is conducted within the government. Eventually, inner-circle disagreements in the National Movement prompted two factions – the Republicans and the Conservatives – to leave the coalition. More fissures snake through the National Movement, with several leaders competing for influence.
These internal tensions, though, are unlikely to result in further significant defections – the attractions of being able to govern the country unilaterally are too large – and have not stopped the National Movement from acting with a confidence that borders on arrogance. It rushed through constitutional changes that increased presidential powers. And then, without consulting the opposition, it pushed through other important legislation, laws that, for example, affected electoral commissions and determined the status of Ajaria, a largely independent region fully reintegrated into the Georgian polity in May 2004. That law was the trigger for the Republicans, one of Georgia’s oldest parties, to part ways with Saakashvili: the National Movement refused to make a Republican the leader of Ajaria’s government.
The signs that undivided power and arrogance could prove a problem came swiftly, prompting civil-society leaders to meet Saakashvili in early 2004 to warn him that the disregard shown to the opposition would harm Georgian democracy. “It is time to end the revolution and revert to [steadier] governance” they stated in a joint declaration.
However, although Saakashvili himself has stopped addressing the opposition pejoratively, the modus operandi of the National Movement has not changed. Late this June, for example, parliament passed a law introducing new rules about the election of Tbilisi’s city council and its mayor. In one way, the law is a clear step forward: the mayor will now be elected (by the city council and not – as the opposition demands – directly by voters), rather than appointed by the president. In another way, it is, in the opposition’s eyes, a step backwards since councilors will no longer be chosen through proportional representation, but in first-past-the-post votes, a “winner takes all” system that favors the ruling party. But it was the manner of the law’s passage – rushed through parliament just two days after the draft was presented – that most bore the hallmarks of the National Movement’s approach to law-making.
The National Movement takes into account “only electoral power,” argues Levan Ramishvili, the head of the Liberty Institute, an activist group that supported Rose Revolution. The government feels “that it got a mandate to carry out changes, and it does not have to share responsibility [with the opposition] or to listen to” an opposition that has no electoral support.
It was probably frustration at this state of affairs that convinced the opposition to be the public face of the somewhat dubious form of street protest on 30 June. They saw the moment as an opening. The reforms introduced by the Saakashvili administration have left some disgruntled, such as the police officers forced out of their jobs and the academics likely to fall victim to education reform. Others’ expectations have not been met – people in the provinces have registered barely an improvement in their lives and persistent electricity shortages are adding to the social hardship – and some in the small, but influential middle class are unhappy at the slow pace of change and by what they see as Saakashvili’s insufficient commitment to democracy.
Each of these disgruntled groups is, however, too small to form a coherent voter base by itself. The opposition therefore tries to identify itself with publicly popular cases, or with ones likely to trigger the greatest discontent with the government. Armed police in the streets is one such case; the public – and the media – tend to support an underdog.
But frustration may have got the better of the opposition’s calculations this time. Firstly, things have changed since Shevardnadze: the fact the people do not like Saakashvili does not automatically mean they would vote for an opposition party. And so the middle-class, moderate Republicans, former allies of Saakashvili, and the radical left-wing Labor Party, long-standing opponents of Saakashvili, may have alienated more committed supporters than won new votes when they held a joint protest on 1 July. Secondly, pro-government MPs have successfully put a negative spin on events, claiming the opposition had endorsed “criminals” who just hours earlier had attacked the Supreme Court. The Interior Ministry published a chart showing the arrested wrestlers as part of an organized-crime ring – a claim corroborated by some independent observers.
In Georgia, organized crime “is so pervasive and its reach is so deep that it can be considered a primary threat to national security,” believes David Darchiashvili, a security analyst and the current chair of the Open Society – Georgia Foundation. The government’s spin was, then, effective as, argues Darchiashvili, all governments make choices between the matters of national security and human rights.
But even if the government has won this battle, the trumpets of war are still sounding. Some believe it will resume with even more bitterness. “The events [on 30 June] have heightened the government’s perception that the opposition is, in fact, acting like its enemy. Their natural response [from the government] would be a ‘fortress mentality,’ to restrict further contacts with the opposition,” Levan Ramishvili fears.
IN NEED OF MEDIATION
The Georgian parliament has now gone into a summer recess. But hopes that this might offer some prospect of a much-needed ceasefire would be wrong, since extraordinary sessions will be held in July. At those the governing party plans to pass a number of important laws – again, without consulting the opposition. The political summer promises to be hot. So too will the winter, since many in the opposition, including the Conservatives and the New Rights Party, say they will boycott the elections to the Tbilisi City Council, due early next year, unless changes are made to the law.
It will be hard to overcome the conflict between the opposing sides. There is a need for a mediator, but there are precious few candidates for the role. With the early tragic death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania this February, many feel that Saakashvili’s administration lost a top deal-maker and a moderate man with a stabilizing touch (though it was because of differences with Zhvania that the Conservatives left the governing coalition). Very few people in the government have real experience of compromise or moderation. The opposition likewise lacks such experience – or, as is the case with the Labor Party, cares little for moderation. Saakashvili could conceivable take up the role, but, following the recent incident in parliament, the president has promised to battle through. It is unlikely, then, that he will don the peacemaker’s mantle. There is a real threat the tempers will soon be running high again.
The only potential mediators are Georgia’s civil-society organizations – an admittedly small group, but one with good access to the media and a record of influence. Following the protests over the wrestlers’ detention, many influential NGOs joined together to convene a press conference at which they passed a weighted judgment on recent events: they condemned the opposition’s seeming endorsement of the rampage through the courthouse, but criticized the government for not arresting the offenders on the spot within the court building. (They also noted that some policemen involved in disbanding the street protest failed to wear uniforms or other identifying insignia, in clear violation of the law.)
NGOs may have no votes behind them, but they can influence the opinion of the international organizations whose support is important to Saakashvili. This might create an opening for a dialogue that would, ideally, lead to the government to involve the opposition more in consultations and the opposition to abandon their threatened boycott of the local elections, a potentially major step back for democracy in post-revolution Georgia.
The government and the opposition would be wise to seize on the opportunity to compromise. More fist-fights on the parliamentary stage will do neither Georgia nor political parties much good since the domestic political audience – Georgian voters – may walk away and choose not to vote. And the signs of extremism returning to Georgian politics are also likely to upset the international audience, the donor community that holds the purse strings of many Georgian reforms.