Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 41

In recent weeks Georgia’s ruling National Movement party has repelled attacks from opposition groups criticizing the government’s policies in various fields. The opposition charges that Georgia under President Mikheil Saakashvili is teetering between illiberal democracy and liberal autocracy. Saakashvili’s government is facing criticism over a high-profile murder, new business regulations, and electoral procedures.

The investigation into the murder of Sandro Girgvliani, a 28-year-old employee of the United Georgian Bank, might turn into a serious headache for the government, as the opposition is portraying the case as an “issue of the country’s honor”(Kavkaz Press, February 27). Girgvliani was killed at a restaurant on January 27 reportedly after a trivial argument with the wife of Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and several high-ranking police officials known to be Saakashvili’s associates. The police reportedly ordered their bodyguards to “punish” Girgvliani, who was found dead in a ditch two days later.

The opposition parties, several NGOs, and the public have demanded a fair investigation of the case and punishment of the guilty. However, on February 28, Merabishvili delivered an unconvincing progress report to parliament. Angry opposition members walked out of the session (Civil Georgia, TV-Imedi, February 28). The ruling party is desperately seeking a face-saving solution, and Saakashvili will likely have the last word.

On February 28, an estimated 2,000 small traders, mobilized by the opposition Labor Party, rallied outside parliament to protest the government’s decree to equip all outdoor marketplaces with cash registers. Protests against the expensive ($150) measure have spread across the country, but the government is not going to yield (TV-Rustavi-2, February 28).

The small traders had almost unanimously supported the Rose Revolution in 2003 and the National Movement. They were attracted to pre-election promises, including exempting micro businesses from taxes for two years to boost entrepreneurship. Today the opposition is courting these groups.

A February 12-18 survey of 1,750 Georgians, commissioned by the Institute for Public Opinion Research, showed the Labor Party as the most popular party at 17.5%, followed by the National Movement (16.6%) and New Rights (6.7%) (Georgian Times, February 23). Some 36% of respondents were “undecided,” which somewhat matches data from other polls showing the electorate’s growing frustration and increasing desire for “fresh blood” in Georgian politics.

Several political forces hope to win over these disenchanted segments of the electorate. New Rights, for example, has recently attracted several dismissed senior military leaders (TV Imedi, TV-202, February 1).

The Russia-leaning political party Samartlianoba (Justice) led by Igor Giorgadze, Georgia’s security minister in 1993-95 (EDM, February 15), is now serving as an umbrella for various public and political groups. The party held a conference in Tbilisi on February 21 and reiterated its earlier threat to stage a “Nettle Revolution” to install Giorgadze as Georgia’s leader (see EDM, February 15). Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, once an influential politician and chair of Giorgadze’s Foundation in Tbilisi, stated that the organization receives its funding from Georgian businessmen (Georgian Times, February 23). Samartlianoba is united with other opposition parties in their demand for early parliamentary and presidential elections. The opposition public movement “People’s Forum,” led by former parliamentarian and former Saakashvili ally Akaki Asatiani, submitted a petition to parliament demanding direct election of the mayor of Tbilisi and heads of regional administrations. The petition contained 75,000 signatures. “If parliament fails to meet our initiative, it will go against the people’s will,” the Forum warned (Kavkaz Press, February 27).

The opposition camp has been reinforced by other influential figures. Former Georgian foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili, who gained popularity after her resignation from Saakashvili’s government (see EDM, October 21, 2005), has decided to transform her public movement into a political party to fully participate in the political processes, including elections. Zourabichvili has already presented her political program to the general public (Kavkaz Press, February 22). On February 23, Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, son of Georgia’s late president Zviad Gamsakhurdia and leader of the political party Tavisupleba (Freedom), finally returned to Georgia after 14 years of forced political exile in Switzerland to enter politics full time. Gamsakhurdia labeled Saakashvili’s rule as a “cartoon dictatorship”(Kviris Palitra, February 27).

One problem for the opposition, and simultaneously an advantage for the ruling party, is that the creation of a unified anti-Saakashvili opposition front looks highly unlikely because of several insuperable political and personal disagreements.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili’s government is constantly discrediting the opposition through the loyal media and select NGOs. By repeatedly stressing the alleged threat from pro-Russian forces, Saakashvili is trying to intimidate the West and underscore the importance of keeping his pro-Western National Movement in power. In his public address on February 25, the anniversary of the 1921 Soviet invasion of Georgia, Saakashvili warned about “another Sovietization” of Georgia (TV Rustavi-2, February 25).

Former president Eduard Shevardnadze’s government perfected the technique of creating political “enemies” and used it to win support from Washington for several years. In his February 24 speech to the American Legion, U.S. President George W. Bush highly praised the color revolutions in the post-Soviet states, adding that this is “only the beginning.” His remark suggests that, despite breaches in democracy building, leaders like Saakashvili are still in demand and could count on Western support in the near future.