Gloomy in Georgia

Georgian President Saakashvili may not deserve the fulsome praise he receives from the West.

Shalva Natelashvili, chairman of the Georgian Labor Party, painted a dark picture of his country's political landscape at the Nixon Center yesterday. Since he last spoke at the center, Natelashvili's "worst fears were realized" about the current Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. According to Natelashvili, not only has Saakashvili botched relations with Russia, but he is also presiding over an increasingly oppressive state. Despite these developments, Western leaders continue to shower the Georgian leader with praise.

Although he was one of the leaders of the Rose Revolution, the president-Natelashvili noted-has yet to fulfill promises to make the government more democratic. Instead, Saakashvili recently changed the constitution, without public consent, to extend his term in office. Natelashvili charged that Saakashvili has filled his cabinet with unqualified cronies, including a 26-year-old rumored to be a drug addict. Under the Saakashvili government, Georgia's Constitutional Court has been brought to the brink of collapse; 29 of the 31 justices on that court have resigned. Furthermore, the Georgian Labor Party leader claimed that elections are no fairer than they were under Saakashvili's ousted predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. "At least Shevardnadze allowed the opposition to be present in the electoral commission, so they knew how much was being falsified", said Natelashvili through a translator.

The Georgian Labor Party chairman also alleged that the government bullies its political adversaries. Natelashvili believes that his phone conversations are monitored. Like other opposition figures, he has been accused by Saakashvili of being a "Russian agent" and threatened with the prospect of jail. Natelashvili supposes that the explosions that occurred in front of his party's headquarters are part of the ruling party's campaign to suppress political dissent. Furthermore, Natelashvili's party has difficulty raising funds, as major party contributors often find themselves under state surveillance. 

Even members of the ruling elite can be subject to state oppression. Natelashvili said he suspects that the government had a hand in the death of Zurab Zhvania, a prime minister in the Saakashvili government. When asked during his briefing why he had arrived at such a suspicion, Natelashvili pointed to discord that had disturbed the political alliance between the parties of Zhvania and Saakashvili. Natelashvili also said that family members of Zhvania had told him that they believe he was killed, and that they were intimidated by authorities that presented them with two different photographs portraying the scene of his death-one benign, the other compromising to the late prime minister.

The opposition leader suggested that the government's campaign to silence criticism extends beyond the political elite. Natelashvili reported that journalists have been "beaten, harrassed and jailed", and several publications and television stations have been shuttered by the government. There is only one independent TV station left in Georgia, and its owner has come under pressure to relinquish control of his company. To stay afloat in this harsh climate, some business leaders-to prevent confiscation of their assets-have resorted to bribing government officials.

Since a country "cannot have a good foreign policy without a sound domestic policy", Natelashvili thinks that Saakashvili's government has placed Georgia in a precarious international position. The opposition leader believes that Saakashvili has not kept Georgia's national interests in mind when dealing with other world leaders. In Natelashvili's view, Georgia's location-at the crossroads of European and Asian cultures-demands a cautious policy; Georgian leaders should "think about something twelve times before they say it." However, Saakashvili has chosen to take a more assertive stance, especially with Russia. While Natelashvili acknowledged that Russia-Georgia relations were already tense, he stated that the current Georgian president has worsened the problem by insulting Russian President Vladimir Putin and needlessly sending troops to Georgia's pro-Russian separatist regions. Saakashvili's posturing caused Russia to mete out a harsh economic punishment on its smaller neighbor, creating further hardships for many Georgians.

Saakashvili's controversial policy decisions seem to have hurt his popularity-polls indicate that his approval rating hovers around 16 percent. Nonetheless, Western governments still back the Georgian president, hurting the prospects for peaceful political change. According to Natelashvili, Western "praise turns to tragedy for the Georgian people because [it makes Saakashvili think] he's infallible." The opposition leader advised Western governments to cease their unflinching support of Saakashvili and begin to criticize him. As the majority of Georgian people are solidly pro-Western, Western governments should not fear a dramatic reorientation of Georgian policy should Saakashvili lose power. In any case, Natelashvili remains pessimistic about Georgia's political future; unless early elections are called, suppressed popular anger could be unleashed in an "uncontrolled explosion."

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.