Tbilisi's Illusion

Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime, faced with growing opposition, is becoming increasingly undemocratic—and the West should pay attention.

Several observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have placed blame for the August 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict in South Ossetia on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who issued a secret order to invade the country. Russia responded to protect its de facto citizens, and Saakashvili turned to the United States for sympathy and military assistance.

If the current administration is determined to press the "reset" button with Russia, it must first press "refresh" with Georgia. On April 9, angered by Saakashvili's fatal mistake, which has damaged the small country's economy and left innocent women and children dead, the Georgian people plan to march in the streets of Tbilisi, demanding Saakashvili's resignation.

The opposition-a strong coalition which includes several well-known, pro-Western, English-speaking diplomats and politicians-plans to continue the rallies until Saakashvili steps down. If the United States is indeed committed to this fledgling democracy, it should recognize that Saakashvili's "Rose Revolution" has failed to bring the much needed changes to the Georgian people, who deserve our sympathy. The country is, in fact, crumbling from within, due to the president's mercurial nature, isolation, hubris and personal free-spending ways. Foreign investors have fled. The president has gone through six prime ministers in six years. Political prisoners rot in the filthy jails. The best and the brightest have escaped to other countries seeking political asylum and unemployment in Georgia is at the highest level in the Caucasus. "Now is not the time for chaos," the president announced.

But the country is on the brink. Saakashvili's clampdown on free media culminated with the suspension of the Georgian Times, the largest opposition paper. The editor made the decision after his son was pulled over in his car by armed government police and threatened.

"Why didn't they tell us there is a dictatorship in Georgia and stop creating the illusion that the country is a democracy," the editor, Malkhaz Gulashvili, was quoted as saying.

The illusion of democracy has been steadily supported by the U.S. State Department. Their emissary, Saakashvili's close friend Matthew Bryza, showed up at Tbilisi's Marriott Hotel last month to tell the opposition that the president would not step down until 2013, the end of his term. Later, he publicly apologized for trying to interfere in the country's "democratic" process.

Out of touch with his fellow countrymen and isolated within a small circle of supporters, Saakashvili has grown increasingly unstable. With no free media, Georgians are forced to listen to the voice of their president droning on for hours, nonstop, on television. The other night, he was trapped inside a Tbilisi restaurant with his bodyguards while angry protestors blocked his exit.

Georgians have so many reasons for wanting to get rid of Saakashvili that it's hard to say what will be the last straw.

When word leaked out that the president had pardoned the four government-connected men guilty of the 2006 brutal murder of twenty-eight-year-old Sandro Girgvliani, people were outraged. It has been the most notorious criminal case in modern Georgian history.

The young man was sitting in the Sharden Bar while a top official of Saakashvili's Interior Ministry held a birthday party. The wife of the official told her bodyguard Girgvliani had glanced at her. Later that evening, four men stuffed Girgvliani in the back of a car, drove off to an isolated area and beat him to death. His body was later found, naked.

The reaction to the murder was shock and anger, sparking public demonstrations. Reaction to the pardon has been harsh. Two members of parliament resigned in protest and the case is still pending before the European Court for Human Rights. The illusion of democracy has also caused well-respected former-leader of parliament (and former Saakashvili supporter) Nino Burjanadze to call for his resignation. In retaliation, the government arrested a number of citizens in her political party, accusing them of plotting an armed coup.

The Interior Ministry posted thirteen phony videos on the web, which Burjanadze called "absurd." "We won't give up," she told reporters this week. "We'll force him to resign." Georgians have waited long enough. They deserve more than an illusion.

 

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of the Georgian parliament. He lives in Washington, DC.