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GEORGIA: Opposition Rallies in the Face of Repression

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, May 27 2011 (IPS) - More than half of Georgia’s population still lives in abject poverty due to economic stagnation, worsening living standards, rising unemployment and low pay nearly nine years after the 2003 bloodless ‘Rose Revolution’ that promised post-Soviet economic revival, a new political course and better living conditions.

Following a military parade Thursday marking Georgia’s independence from Russia, two people were reported killed and many more injured when police used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to break up an opposition rally against President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government.

The Georgian opposition has taken to the streets to press for the resignation of the current government that have failed to live up to people’s expectations. They also claim that after the ‘Rose Revolution’ there were many opportunities and resources for normalising Georgian-Russian relations, which would have made it possible to solve vital domestic economic problems.

“I think one of the key mistakes of [President Mikheil] Saakashvili’s government is that it considers rule of law not as the major priority and there is no judicial independence,” Eka Gigauri, executive director of Transparency International Georgia, told IPS. “Good legislation remains theoretically only as paperwork and are not duly implemented. Further, media environment is not free and independent, and many influential channels are state controlled.”

Experts say there can only be speedy improvement if radical economic development and political reforms are implemented with strong support and participation of young progressive groups.

In spite of the fact that after the protests in 2009, the government initiated negotiations with opposition parties on the improvement of the electoral environment, no tangible results have been achieved. Negotiations are stopped and the government does not want to compromise and create the possibility for Georgian people to express their will on fair elections, Gigauri said.

After the Rose Revolution, the Georgian government could not manage to improve the social conditions of the population, the unemployment rate is still high, and people are suffering from the high prices and low social conditions, according to Gigauri.

Building of democracy in Georgia started after the Rose Revolution and that still remains the key challenge. It is obvious that any country with weak government institutions faces challenges in implementing democratic values, but in the case of Georgia, there was an initial achievement in fighting petty corruption, Gigauri admitted.

However, she added that “democratic principles have been sacrificed for stability and security of the country. The main challenge of the government remains to strengthen democratic institutions and to elaborate long-term reform strategy. The reforms in civil and public sectors fall below expectations. People talk about corruption among the elite, however this is very difficult to prove even by civil society organisations.”

Some experts have mixed views. Zviad Eradze, president of the Youth Resource Center here, a non- profit institution that works on youth mobilisation for development and political programmes, said the Georgian leaders and the public believe that opposition protests were funded by Moscow – indirectly referring to the Kremlin. Relations between Russia and Georgia have dwindled since Saakashvili’s election in 2004, reaching an ultimate low in 2008, when the two countries fought a short war over two breakaway Georgian republics.

“At the same time, what I observe from here is that they [opposition groups] do not have support from the general public,” Eradze said. “Secondly, all governments have mistakes, among them is Saakashvili’s, but none of the mistakes are critical. As for the corruption level in Georgia, I would say there is no corruption. The situation is much better than before.”

As a former Soviet republic, Georgia is a sovereign state in the Caucasus region of Eurasia and it is located at the crossroads of western Asia and eastern Europe, bounded to the west by the Black Sea, to the north by Russia, to the southwest by Turkey, to the south by Armenia, and to the southeast by Azerbaijan.

Georgia, with a population of almost 4.7 million, has an agricultural economy and little industrial production. Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, has ruled the former Soviet republic since the Rose Revolution that catapulted him into power from obscurity. He took over from Edward Shevernadze, who became the president after Soviet collapse in 1991.

Some international organisations have assisted Georgia’s economy. Inga Paichadze, external affairs officer at the World Bank office in Tbilisi, declined to comment on democracy and human rights issues in Georgia, but explained to IPS that the World Bank provides its support to Georgia through the Country Partnership Strategy (CPS), which now spans 2010-2013.

Prepared against the backdrop of the twin crises of the August 2008 conflict and the global economic downturn, the CPS was built around two pillars, according to the World Bank CPS report: (i) meeting post-conflict and vulnerability needs, and (ii) strengthening competitiveness for post-crisis recovery and growth.

Pleased with strong results, the World Bank is providing 235 million dollars in new financing over the next two years to help sustain economic growth and support the needs of the vulnerable. Much of this will go towards local and secondary roads and regional development, the report said.

Early this year, the U.S. ambassador to the South Caucasus also announced that the U.S. was allocating 90 million dollars for democratic reforms in Georgia – a step that led Georgian opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze to say that the West had finally begun treating Tbilisi “adequately”.

Despite external efforts, Georgians seem dissatisfied and frustrated about the pace of development. They restarted a series of public protests in May that were often brutally dispersed by pro-Saakashvili’s security forces.

Leaders of the Nation-Wide Assembly of Georgia (NWAG), which organised political action, were joined by nearly all the opposition groups in saying “unity of opposition forces and the entire society was necessary for the resignation of Saakashvili and the holding of early elections”.

Some officials argue that Saakashvili enjoys support of the majority of citizens and will not resign until the end of his term of office – Oct. 2013. The opposition is unable to force Saakashvili to step down ahead of time, they say.

“Any political standoff is a natural phenomenon for a democratic society, but the politics ends where armed persons are brought to the battlefield. Unfortunately, the Georgian history has seen examples where such irresponsible actions and a military standoff provoked by politicians caused fateful and deplorable results that we are still reaping today,” said Giorgi Targamadze, leader of the Georgian Christian Democratic Movement (CDM). “People who wear the uniform of a motherland defender do not need additional explanations that this weapon must be used against Georgia’s enemies and not for opposing their own fellow-citizens.”

Georgia’s opposition groups rallied with frustration and disappointment over the results of the Rose Revolution, and have called for reforms or complete regime change. Georgia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze told reporters that “the country’s authorities recognise the right to freedom of association. This is the principle signed into law by the country that we respect.”

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