Monday, January 26, 2009

Six months after the war, Georgia looks very different

For a few days last summer Georgia was under the world spotlight, portrayed by Mikheil Saakashvili, its president, as a victim of Russian aggression on a par with the invasion of Hungary in 1956 or Hitler's blitzkriegs. As Russian tanks rolled across northern Georgia and smoke from burning villages plumed into the sky, western politicians and the media rushed into talk of a new cold war.

Six months later, Georgia is a different place. Leading figures in the opposition openly blame Saakashvili for the five-day war. So, too, do several recent defectors from his team, including two who were his standard-bearers last summer at the United Nations and in Moscow.

On Barack Obama's international agenda Georgia is not the top item, but Saakashvili as well as his opponents are looking to Washington for any sign of a new approach. Georgia and Russia are clearly linked, but which is the dog and which the tail? How the new US president answers that question will shed light not just on the value he puts on good relations with Moscow, but also on his understanding of how far democracy has advanced, or retreated, in the former Soviet republics.

Under Bush Georgia was a favourite, touted as a fledgling democracy with a US-educated leader representing western standards. Saakashvili had come to power in 2003 after demonstrations over rigged elections forced Eduard Shevardnadze, a former member of the Soviet nomenklatura and one-time Soviet foreign minister, to resign. Dubbed the Rose revolution, it became the template for Ukraine's Orange revolution in 2004.

The west's labelling of Saakashvili as a democrat staggers Georgia's opposition politicians. They deplore the way that Saakashvili's enthusiasm for joining Nato, plus an almost total lack of serious foreign media attention, allowed him to escape rigorous scrutiny. They point to constant slippage since the Rose revolution, from constitutional changes that emasculated parliament to the gradual takeover of the main television channels, pressure on businessmen to join the ruling party or toe its line, the sacking of independent administrators and, finally, the same faults that undid Shevardnadze - election-rigging.

"Saakashvili was our Obama. After 10 years of Shevardnadze people wanted change. But now we are no different from Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan," says Erosi Kitsmarishvili, a businessman who was in charge of the Rustavi 2 television station that helped to bring crowds into the streets five years ago. Along with Zurab Zhvania, who became prime minister, and Nino Burdzhanadze, who became speaker of parliament, he was seen as the third key member of the group that put Saakashvili in power. Zhvania died in a mysterious accident in 2005, which many Georgians assume was murder. Burdzhanadze resigned a few months before the August war, and now wants Saakashvili to.

George Khutsishvili, who heads the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiations, says Saakashvili and the half-dozen loyalists who form the core of his regime have cynical motives in allowing opposition newspapers, small television stations, and political parties. "These people had authoritarian instincts from the beginning but they had to maintain some sort of liberal democratic slogans. These people want velvet authoritarianism," he adds. As Obama was taking his oath of office last week, Khutsishvili was at the US embassy delivering a letter from several civil society groups. It urged the new president not to limit his Georgian contacts to the government.

If their demands seem remote from last August's war and the presence today of thousands of Russian troops in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Saakashvili's opponents see a connection. David Akubardia, who runs the Kavkasia television station, claims the president turned to war after tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against the results of parliamentary elections. "He began this adventure. He wanted to transfer popular hatred of him to hatred against the Russians," he says. He points out that even according to official figures for the presidential poll last January, Saakashvili was defeated.

David Usupashvili, who chairs the Republican party, puts the same point more softly. Describing the August war as the "logical end" of months of Saakashvili's manipulation of Georgia's domestic politics, he says: "Until August 80% of responsibility [for the war] was on the Russian side. They were taking these regions away from Georgia step by step. During the night of 7 August [when Georgian forces launched a bombardment of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, and entered the city] 70% of the blame was on Saakashvili's side."

A mood of resignation now affects most Georgians. Thanks to the war, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are seen as lost, for at least a decade, if not for ever. Foreign humanitarian workers in contact with refugees who fled the two regions in the early 1990s say their dream of going home was shattered in August. For the new wave of refugees, trying to rebuild lives and find jobs, the shock of sudden homelessness is too severe to allow much speculation about eventual return. But here, too, criticism of Saakashvili can be heard. "You Europeans and America put this president in. Please take him away," a woman in a small cottage on a government estate for displaced people told me. She did not want her name to be used.

Ministers reject the criticisms and describe the top defectors as grumblers who always wanted more power or to use their government jobs for self-enrichment. They insist Moscow started the war. Temuri Yakobashvili, the minister for reintegration, says the army's advance on Tskhinvali was not an attempt to liberate the region but a military necessity to block a Russian invasion that was already under way. "If you want to defend Georgian villages north of Tskhinvali, the only way was through Tskhinvali. The Russians could have been in Tbilisi if we hadn't gone to Tskhinvali. We won time and were able to stop the Russians from advancing across Georgia," he says.

Whether Obama accepts this case or the opposition's will become clear later. The crucial point is that last summer's image of a little democracy trying to resist the advances of a brutal giant was flawed. More and more Georgians are asking why they found themselves at war and if their president can be trusted. Obama's people, as well as European governments, need to listen hard.

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