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Georgia: The legacy Of April 9, 2009 – Analysis

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April 9 is etched in the collective memory for much of the Georgian people as a day of sorrow, tragedy, but also of promise. Commemorating the Soviet massacre of Georgian demonstrators on April 9, 1989 — an event that did its part to propel the overwrought, creaking USSR to the brink of its eventual demise only two years later — April 9 is also a date that has signified the beginning of the end of tyranny and the launching of a fresh chapter in Georgian history.

April 9 is now known in Georgia as erovnuli ertianobis dghe (ეროვნული ერთიანობის დღე) or ‘National Unity Day’ — a day that is meant to signify the oneness of the Georgian people against trial and adversity. But two years ago, Georgia seemed anything but united. On April 9, 2009, a coalition of Georgian opposition parties launched protests as a major response to Georgia’s disastrous 2008 war and the presidential elections, which restored a modicum of legitimacy to the ruling United National Movement after it had violently broken up major street demonstrations in November 2007. When the protests began, the opposition was united in its belief that it had popular support on its side and that it could wait out Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili to force his resignation.

Georgia
Georgia

“I would say it is the final test for the nation, and [everything] depends on the extent to which we are able to stand there calmly, prudently, and to the end,” declared ex-foreign minister and now ex-opposition leader Salome Zourabichvili on April 8 [1] (Zourabichvili has since left Georgian politics and taken a job with the UN). [2]

“There is no turning back. Disbanding is out of question — and whoever calls for that will be carrying out a task assigned to them by the government.”

It was on the foundation of such fiery rhetoric that the Georgian opposition launched into what would become a months-long series of demonstrations and protests. This included camping out on major thoroughfares like Rustaveli Avenue to out-wait the famously temperamental Saakashvili, who had discovered a more patient side of himself.

Instead of sparking another people power revolution, or even rallies with the intensity of November 2007, the crowds dwindled. The residual protesters played more backgammon than sang slogans, while waiting around in the constellation of mock prison cells dotting Rustaveli. The makeshift portable toilets on the streets threw a terrible stench and attracted hordes of flies to Tbilisi’s most fashionable boulevard. Ordinary Georgians were inconvenienced. And public support for the rallies dropped precipitously.

Making my first trip back to Georgia in May 2009 since I had left in 2007, I remember wandering along Rustaveli, inspecting the remaining cadre of diehards, their friends, and the assortments of less-than-amused casual spectators. It was clear that there was little or no appetite for another revolution in Georgia, a country still freshly upturned from the August 2008 war, the November 2007 tear gassing, and even the 2004 Rose Revolution. And certainly not to uplift the movement’s most identifiable leaders like Nino Burjanadze, the nomenklatura princess and consummate opportunist, Levan Gachechiladze, the wealthy vakeli businessman turned professional oppositionist, and Salome Zourabichvili, a discarded ex-cabinet member from France.

But the initial draws to the rallies in 2009, despite persisting rumors of 30 lari/day stipends for protesters, were not insignificant. And if nothing else, the protests in 2007 and 2009 did highlight a major well of dissatisfaction among the Georgian population to the autocratic style of Saakashvili and his circle, though many of them continued to cling (and still do) to their positive but outdated legacies from the Rose Revolution, the kmara movement, the Liberty Institute, and the like. But the large turnouts that kicked off the protest season, and quickly evaporated when it became clear Saakashvili and his coterie weren’t going anywhere (and the opposition was going nowhere), seemed to be mainly comprised of fence-sitters that felt that Georgia could do better than Saakashvili but weren’t sold on the all-supporting actor cast of Vake intelligentsia. This gulf only widened when Nino Burjanadze and former prime minister Zurab Noghaideli took their powerpoint presentations to Moscow and broke bread with Russian big boss-man Vladimir Putin. Georgians, despite their enduring (powerful?) affection for Russia and Russians, could not stomach the notion of their politicians begging for scraps underneath the United Russia table at the price of national sovereignty.
So what is the legacy of the April 2009 demonstrations? The first is that radicalism, though in no way entirely extinguished in Georgia, is a dying industry within the Georgian political firmament.

When the protests broke down later that summer, the opposition coalition had little to show for it but a few choice face-saving quips and the realization that they had gambled hard and lost. [3] About a year later, in late spring 2010, the opposition took another thrashing during the Georgian local elections, with the inevitable cries of foul looking even less credible. And today, the radical opposition is a mostly fragmented, splintered affair — deeply divided, broken by infighting, and more or less directionless save for periodic bursts of barking and pouting. [4]

So what is the legacy of the April 2009 demonstrations? The first is that radicalism, though in no way entirely extinguished in Georgia, is a dying industry within the Georgian political firmament. Radicals will attract attention and continue to find audience among the conspiratorially-inclined, but direct support and warm bodies for their projects have been greatly diminished.

But if the legacy opposition’s political value has been downgraded to junk status, there are others that appear to be rising to take their place. Irakli Alasania, the former Georgian ambassador to the UN, and Giorgi Targamadze, the telegenic leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, seemed to have taken note of the dramatic fall of the radical factions and, in particular, lessons from the May 2010 elections. Alasania and Targamadze, both relatively popular figures that lead political movements that polled rather well in 2010, have focused their attentions and energies not on Saakashvili’s personal or even political failings, but on developing comprehensive policy platforms and a commitment to constitutional institutions. [5]

Though these post-April 9 parties and their leaders are unafraid to point out the structural flaws and democratic deficit in current institutional mechanisms, their focus on evolutsia seems to suggest an interest in state building – a practice that would have been anathema to the radical factions – and not merely the power of governance or the power of being in opposition.

If 2010 was a dress rehearsal, then the 2012 parliamentary elections and the 2013 presidential elections are the main event. [6] It remains to be seen how the well-meaning but inconsistent Alasania and Targamadze will perform on the bigger stage, but for a country that seems to crave continuity with change and freshness by evolution, the emergence of a more credible, policy-minded opposition is likely welcome and a potential opportunity.

For the Georgian government, the goodwill won from the police reforms and economic growth is passing. The trust generated by the police makeover is producing diminished political returns, if any; Georgians are reaching a point where they are beginning to expect to be treated fairly by their police, and rightly so. And whatever economic growth now occurring is, to many Georgians, of little use when incentives and attention overwhelmingly favor the big companies and their highly connected helmsmen. Many remain out of work or underemployed while a tiny class of nouveaux riches bravely pack Tbilisi restaurants, bars, and clubs on their behalf. But it will be up to Alasania, Targamadze, and others of that sort to find a way to capture these sentiments and turn them into votes.

April 9, 2009 was announced as a watershed moment for Georgia’s political history. At the time, the opposition’s leaders hailed the rallies as the start of a new dawn for Georgia. In some ways, they might have been right. But instead of launching themselves into the halls of power, the radicals may have hastened the passing of their own political relevance. Let’s hope that the next generation of Georgian opposition leaders learn from their predecessors’ fall and help Georgia take the next step into an era of greater stability and genuine democracy.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.rferl.org/content/Georgian_Opposition_Vows_To_Protest_As_Long_As_Needed_Until_President_Resigns/1604901.html
[2] See: http://www.messenger.com.ge/issues/2234_november_12_2010/2234_eto.html
[3] See: http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=21294
[4] Only partially relevant, but hilarious: http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63170
[5] See: http://georgiandaily.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=21299&Itemid=133; http://www.messenger.com.ge/issues/2330_april_4_2011/2330_gvanca.html; and http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=23321
[6] See: http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=23331

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Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

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