Georgia Opposition Groups And The Arab Unrest

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 62

Georgian Opposition figure Nino Burjanadze. (Reuters)

Turmoil in the Arab world has elicited contrasting responses from the two sides of Georgia’s political opposition. Extra-parliamentary radical groups (themselves of varied colors) seem inspired to start yet another regime-change campaign. The parliamentary opposition, on the other hand, rejects the use of “revolutionary” methods in Georgia, emphasizing instead electoral processes and preparing for next year’s elections.

While many in the West construe the Arab turmoil as democracy in action, Georgia’s serial regime-change campaigners take a more cynical view. Leaders of these groups hope that unlawful actions would provoke the government into using force. They calculate that such a turn of events might cause the government to lose internal legitimacy and, above all, Western backing.

This tactic is not a new one for the Georgian militant groups. Some of them used it already in 2007 and 2009. Novelties this time include overt use of the term revolution; unprecedented if ambiguous references to bloodshed; and a lesson, drawn from the Arab events, that the West cannot countenance the use of force by a threatened pro-Western government.

Unlike 2007 or even 2009, however, Georgia’s extra-parliamentary regime-changers face isolation in society.  Lacking allies in the political mainstream, they are outweighed by opposition parties that operate within the institutional system. These parties are preparing for legislative and presidential elections, due in 2012. Outside parliament, however, the militant opposition imagines its revolution to force a change of government and pre-term elections this year (Interfax, March 28).   

The militant opposition is itself deeply factionalized. It includes a People’s Assembly consisting of eight different groups; a Georgian Party, rival to the People’s Assembly; a Democratic Movement-United Georgia group, led by the husband-and-wife tandem of Badri Bitsadze and Nino Burjanadze (former head of the Border Guards and former chairwoman of parliament, respectively); and some additional groups and factions (24 Saati, March 4, 17). Bitsadze and one of the leaders of the Georgian Party, Levan Gachechiladze (presidential runner-up in the January 2008 election), came to blows publicly in Munich airport over accusations and denials of betrayal (EurasiaNet, March 28).

These groups have missed their chance to capitalize on economic hardship. Georgia’s economy has entered the post-crisis recovery, its GDP currently growing at 6 percent and expected to maintain at least this rate for the year. Inflation remains a serious problem, having peaked at 14 percent year-on-year in February, though forecast to decline to single-digits in the course of the year (Radio Free Europe, March 13). The government responds by distributing food vouchers to some social groups and indexing pensions. Global commodity and food prices impacting on Georgia cannot easily be blamed on the government by its opponents.

Militant oppositionists are naming various “D-Days” (April 9, April 24, May 2) for a start to “decisive” rallies and demonstrations. Burjanadze, for example, proposes to “force the government to leave peacefully, without bloodshed,” and threatens a “fierce response if they dare to raise a hand” (Russia Today, March 16; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 24). In a similar vein Georgian Party chairman, Sozar Subari, calls for a “show of force to deter them [the government]” and “respond commensurately” if the authorities use force, e.g., with batons against batons (Rezonansi, March 21).

The militant groups lack a social base for mass rallies; but they seem prepared to spark off incidents with a potential for escalation. Some Georgians are concerned that Russia might in that case draw a parallel to the Western intervention in Libya, and intervene itself to “protect the people” in Georgia. The Christian-Democrat Movement’s leader, Giorgi Targamadze, expressed this concern during the recent NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s conference in Tbilisi (Kavkas-Press, March 24).

Targamadze’s Christian-Democrats and Our Georgia-Free Democrats, led by Irakli Alasania, are the main opposition parties working within the institutional system. Rejecting the idea of “revolution” (which, in Georgia, mainly implies an unconstitutional change of government), these parties plan to run in elections according to the constitutional timetable (2012), aiming to increase their share of political power. They are currently negotiating with the majority party, the National Movement, to amend the electoral code in parliament.

Targamadze’s group had broken away from the regime-change camp in early 2008, gained parliamentary representation in that year’s elections, and took up its seats as an opposition party (whereas the militants turned down the few seats they gained in that same year). Alasania’s Our Georgia – Free Democrats cooperated uneasily with the militant opposition during the 2009 anti-government campaign, but broke away from it in the following year.

These two parties matured in the country-wide local elections of 2010. Those elections laid a foundation for further development of a party system in Georgia. They confirmed the pro-presidential National Movement’s high rating; marked the emergence of responsible opposition parties; and conclusively marginalized the anachronistic parties of serial revolutions.