English speakers associate cowardice with a chicken; in Georgia, it’s a rabbit. So in Tbilisi, protesters have been chucking carrots at President Mikhail Saakashvili’s office in his new, imposing Chancellery, built on a cliff overlooking the city. The crowds are down from this month’s big rally, which independent observers had at around 40,000 to 50,000 protesters. Still, somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand demonstrators each day are keeping the atmosphere in the Georgian capital uncertain, blocking roads from time to time, besieging the State TV channel, and pitching tents at the entrance to the Chancellery. The government would like to negotiate—on parliamentary reform and issues of judicial and media independence—but the opposition has stuck to its maximalist demand: the only negotiation it’s willing to enter into, its leaders say, is the terms of Saakashvili’s resignation.
Irakli Alasania, who was, until a few months ago, Georgia’s ambassador to the U.N., but who broke with the government, in part over the disastrous consequences of the war with Russia last summer, should be the leading figure of the opposition: Alasania is young and handsome, and has a diplomat’s reputation for being reasonable. But he’s also politically inexperienced; when he mentioned negotiation with Saakashvili in a speech a few days ago, the crowd booed and other opposition leaders took over the demonstration with more radical rhetoric.
This kind of polarization is a shame and a lost opportunity—there’s a huge middle ground of disaffection in the country that would support an opposition movement organized around the issues. Many—probably even most—Georgians harbor deep concerns about Saakashvili’s regime, but don’t wish to risk another upheaval. Georgia has overthrown both of its previous Presidents; Saakashvili himself led the demonstrations that resulted in Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation in 2003, in what became known as the Rose Revolution.
But for the time being, Georgia remains mired in politics of personality. Last autumn, I profiled Saakashvili as he began to deal with the fallout from the Russian war. (Entire article available to subscribers.) He now faces the Obama Administration, which is proving less gung-ho about Georgia’s inclusion in NATO and more pragmatic in its relations with Russia, as well as a global economic downturn that has slashed foreign investment. Despite all of this, he still retains his famous bluster, and isn’t put off by flying vegetables. “Carrots, some cabbages too—we’ve been making soup!” Saakashvili told me.
Keywords Georgia; Irakli Alasania; Mikhail Saakashvili; Tbilisi; Wendell Steavenson