Georgia: Farewell to Democracy?

Is this the end of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's brave new democracy? Thursday night the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, were eerily silent as riot police patrolled and an army of janitors cleaned up the trash left after six days of street protests which erupted in violence on Tuesday. Friday, Georgia's opposition announced that there would be no more protests after Saakashvili called for snap elections in January. But the image of Georgia as a free, if chaotic, model of post-Soviet democracy lies in tatters.

"I could never imagine such violence and madness could happen in Tbilisi, even in my worst dreams," says Sozar Tsubari, 43, Georgia's human rights ombudsman, who was elected by parliament in 2004. "I witnessed three or four policemen beating a protester who was lying the ground. I ran to them, yelling, 'Please don't kill him.' But the police began to beat me instead. Someone shouted, 'Do not beat him; he is the ombudsman.' But the police said, 'Then he is a dog and a traitor'."

Saakashvili overthrew a corrupt, pro-Moscow government in the popular "Rose Revolution" of November 2003. Four years later, on the same square where his supporters once gathered, Saakashvili on Tuesday ordered riot police dressed in black and wearing balaclavas to disperse protesting crowds with tear gas, water cannons, batons and fists. David Vakhtadze, 71, a retired hydrogeologist, was walking down Rustaveli Prospect, Tbilisi's main street, when a group of young people ran past him. "One shouted, 'Old man, get off the streets. They'll shoot at you!'" says Vakhtadze. "But I could not believe that somebody would shoot at a lonely man like me with gray hair and a tie." Moments later, police fired tear gas canisters towards Vakhtadze, which left him blinded for hours. Justina Melnikiewicz, a freelance photographer, was pushed to the ground by masked police who smashed her camera. Lawyer Gela Nikolaishvili, 52, found himself caught in a crowd marching toward the center of the city just as it was attacked by riot police. "I was sitting in the car, not able to drive away because of the crush of people, not believing my eyes," he recalls. "Right in front of me Georgian policemen were beating young and old people; some were on the ground badly injured. It was the scariest thing I have ever seen."

What went wrong? Saakashvili has always styled himself a democrat—as well as one of the United States's few allies in the region, ready to stand up to Kremlin bullying and to push through radical economic reforms designed to reshape his country as a liberal, democratic free market.

That hardly squares with this week's violence—or with 15 days of martial law imposed by Saakashvili yesterday and expected to be ratified by parliament by the end of the week. All demonstrations are banned; all media is under temporary state censorship. The opposition-supporting Imedi TV station was forced off the air as riot police stormed into the channel's buildings late Wednesday night. News Web sites have also been closed.

"Its like the Soviet era, when they would televise the Swan Lake ballet when something important was happening," complains Georgian Radio Freedom journalist Koba Liklikadze. He says that the station's management is "looking for ways to switch to shortwave broadcasting" in order to defy restrictions on FM radio. "An information blackout is the stupidest thing [for the state] to do. There's a hunger for information."

Saakashvili's ally and head of the parliament's defense committee Givi Targamadze claimed last night that the government was defending democracy against a "coup attempt" organized by powerful business interests and backed by Russia. "Imedi TV is a tool that [Georgian businessman] Badri Patarkatsishvili is using to plot a coup in Georgia to please the Kremlin," Targamadze told state television.

It's hard to know if there is any truth to those allegations. But, in fact, it's now irrelevant. Despite the semblance of order on Tbilisi's streets, Saakashvili has decisively lost the first round to the opposition. He's ordered the use of force against peaceful demonstrators—with 360 people ending up in the hospital. Opposition leaders Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, son of Georgia's late president, and Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili have both disappeared after warrants were issued for their arrest, while another, Koba Davitashvili, head of the opposition People's Party, claims that he was "kidnapped and beaten" by police on the afternoon of Nov. 7.

Tbilisi, in true cold war style, has also expelled three employees of the Russian embassy who were accused of "contacts with the opposition with an aim of a coup d'état." But whether Moscow was really planning a coup has become irrelevant. Saakashvili was tested, and his instincts were those of a post-Soviet strongman, not those of a true democrat.

"Yesterday we saw President Saakashvili commit political suicide," said Tinatin Khidasheli, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Party, the largest of a 10-party opposition coalition that staged the Nov. 2-7 demonstrations in Tbilisi. If the aim of asymmetric warfare is to provoke one's stronger foe into an act of self-destructive overreaction, then the opposition have succeeded handsomely.

Saakashvili, after a barrage of criticism from the European Union and NATO, addressed his nation on television Thursday night to declare early presidential elections, on Jan. 5. It will be a crucial test. He's pleased the West by hosting George Bush and sending troops to Iraq. But that may not be enough for his own people, stuck in grinding poverty and plagued by systemic corruption. And even if rumors of Russian interference in last week's demonstrations were exaggerated or even false, it now looks certain that the Kremlin will do everything in its power to make sure that Saakashvili, the West's darling, takes a hard fall at the polls.