As top Georgian leaders conducted diplomatic trips abroad, the domestic political situation at home heated up. President Mikheil Saakashvili returned from his July 3-6 visit to the United States with declarations of support from the Bush administration. Parliamentary Chair Nino Burjanadze was not as fortunate, returning from Brussels having lost her bid for the presidency of the OSCE parliamentary assembly to Sweden’s Goran Lennmarker on July 7. Analysts regarded her interest in this post as an attempt to move away from the political disturbances that reportedly have weakened her political influence in Georgia.
Meanwhile, the first weeks of July have seen an upswing in anti-government protests in Georgia. Seven Georgian opposition parties (New Rights, Industrialist, Republican, Conservative, Labor, People’s Forum, and Freedom) warned on June 30 that they would boycott the coming local elections if the government fails to democratize the electoral code and introduce a proportional system for choosing the Tbilisi City Council. A proportional system, according to the opposition, gives all political groups, including the ruling party, equal opportunities to win seats. The ruling party turned down the initiative, after accusing the opposition of blackmailing the government (TV Imedi, June 30).
Beginning last Thursday, July 6, opposition parties and several non-governmental organizations organized protests in Tbilisi and other cities. The rallies condemned the arrest of leaders of the Equality Institute, the recent Tbilisi City Court verdict about the high-profile murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani in January (see EDM, March 9, May 24), and the controversial, government-initiated reforms at Tbilisi State University that have led to significant cuts in the academic staff. The protesters accused the authorities of putting pressure on the court to convict four low-ranking policemen, even though senior Interior Ministry officers were accused of the killing. Some reports even allege that the Interior Minister’s wife ordered Girgvliani’s assassination. Leaders of opposition parties and human rights NGOs demanded the resignation of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili for allegedly protecting the actual killers. Commenting on the Girgvliani case, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft said that the embassy expects “no cover-ups” from the Georgian government and wants to see “those who are responsible” brought to justice (Associated Press, July 6).
The authorities have attempted to minimize the significance of the opposition protests. On July 7 Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli declared that the government would not allow anyone to provoke a crisis in the country. That same day Giorgi Arveladze, chief of the Presidential Administration, Giga Bokeria, Maia Nadiradze, and Nino Kalandadze, three influential parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement, convened a news conference to downplay the scale of the protest rallies, justify the Girgvliani verdict, accuse the opposition of destabilization, and give a strong backing to Merabishvili. Bokeria alleged that the rally actually was very small-scale and most participants were from the pro-Russian party of Igor Giorgadze, Georgia’s fugitive former security minister. However, not everybody in the government shared the National Movement’s attitude. State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, known as relatively independent-minded member of the cabinet, also criticized the handling of the Girgvliani case (TV-Imedi, Resonansi, Civil Georgia, July 7).
Amid the political standoff between government and opposition, two leading Georgian private television companies, Rustavi-2 and Imedi, have unexpectedly attracted public attention in their own right. Arveladze and Bokeria accused Imedi, co-owned by News Corporation and Badri Patarkatsishvili, a Georgian tycoon who is no fan of the ruling party, of bolstering revolutionary sentiments among the public through extensive live coverage of the protest rallies. Rustavi-2 suffered a blow when Eka Khoperia, head of the information service and a popular anchor of Rustavi-2’s political talk show “Tavisupali Tema” (Free Theme), announced her resignation live on July 6, citing pressure and “unacceptable demands” by “some officials.” Khoperia also stated on air that Merabishvili must resign. Rustavi-2 won acclaim for its vital contribution to the November 23, 2003, Rose Revolution, but lately analysts have accused the station of becoming extremely pro-government in its reporting. However, some analysts argued that Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who reportedly controls Rustavi-2 behind the scenes, might have been behind Khoperia’s anti-Merabishvili statement. Meanwhile, National Movement officials vehemently deny that they impose their policies on the media.
Some analysts, including pro-governmental ones, describe the current situation in Georgia as “pre-crisis.” Along with political tensions, the socio-economic situation is worsening, and unemployment is rising. The Georgian National Bank is reporting that the inflation rate has already reached 10% (TV-Rustavi-2, July 10).
Some pundits call on the National Movement’s young leaders to stop talking down to the public and start a real dialogue to avoid harming Georgia’s progress toward integration with NATO and European structures. The government must bear the brunt of responsibility for respecting democratic principles and consolidating society around these principles, political pundit Levan Izoria said (Resonansi, July 11).
In the coming weeks Saakashvili may have to make some tough decisions regarding the government in order to calm the domestic political scene. Meeting with journalists on July 11, Saakashvili said that the government is a “living organism” and that changes, may occur but they will not be dramatic (TV Imedi, July 11). He may be hinting at a new cabinet shuffle, but the question is which ministers will lose their jobs.