Saturday, July 16, 2005

The War of the Roses

Meanwhile, following on from the recent skirmish on the streets of Tbilisi and fisticuffs in the Georgian Parliament, things are no longer looking so "rosy" in Armenia's northern neighbor. Unfortunately, events that followed a small group of sportsmen running amok after two of their own were place in pre-trial attention, are now being used to detract from pro-democracy movements elsewhere. This is particularly true for Armenia where the state-controlled Public TV had a field day with footage of riot police on the streets of the Georgian capital.

Would that we could be so lucky in Yerevan, however. Last year, in April 2004, it was actually the police beating journalists and smashing their cameras so no footage exists. Two friends, journalists from RFE/RL, were forced to run for their lives and go into hiding as Armenian riot police indiscriminately attacked peaceful protestors largely made up of pensioners and ambushed others as they tried to escape. Nevertheless, the recent events in Georgia didn't do Saakashvili any favors. Already there is talk of growing impatience among western donors and also, rumor that is wife has left him or is about to.
The tiny trigger in this bitter battle between former partners was – oddly, but as it turned out appropriately – a court ruling that consigned two wrestling champions charged with extortion to pre-trial detention. After the court’s decision on 30 June, disgruntled relatives and friends of the detainees rampaged through the courtroom, which was in the same building as Georgia’s Supreme Court. An angry mob then blocked traffic on Tbilisi’s main street, Rustaveli Avenue. The capital’s transport police struggled to restore traffic and the riot police were called in as the crowd ran amok. Dozens were briefly hauled away by the police, but around ten were taken into custody. No one was seriously injured (all accept that point), though some felt the force of the riot police’s batons.


This unpleasant but isolated incident has sent shockwaves through Georgian politics. All major TV stations broadcast the events live and most gave the floor to the opposition, seizing on the “excessive use of force” as an opportunity to attack the government. “A crime against humanity” was the evaluation of the incident by an opposition Republican Party leader Levan Berdzenishvili. Others even compared that the events to the bloodshed of 9 April 1989 when Soviet troops disbanded the peaceful pro-independence rally – an extreme comparison since 20 protestors, mostly women, were killed that day.

So everyone expected the rough and tumble on the streets to produce heated words on the floor of parliament the next day. What Georgians got, though, was even wilder than even the wildest expectations: a spontaneous, free-wheeling fist-fight that left MPs with cuts and bruises. The chief sparring partners were the former partners-in-revolution, the ruling National Movement party and the Republicans. In their more restrained moments, former friends and comrades from the revolution hurled insults at each other, the opposition accusing the ruling party of authoritarianism and the ruling party accusing the opposition of backing criminals.

Anyway, part of the problem as highlighted by this article posted on (although originally published by Transitions Online) is that the "Rose Revolution" that brought the young Saakashvili to power did so in a disproportionate way. Elected by 90 percent of the vote, another necessary ingredient for a democratic society was forgotten -- an effective opposition. Moreover, when many of Georgia's Shevardnadze-era activists migrated into Saakashvili's government, the country's greatest asset -- a vibrant civil society -- was also inadvertently destroyed.
Such a concentration of power has both frustrated the opposition and ensured that much of Georgia’s politics is conducted within the government. Eventually, inner-circle disagreements in the National Movement prompted two factions – the Republicans and the Conservatives – to leave the coalition. More fissures snake through the National Movement, with several leaders competing for influence.


The signs that undivided power and arrogance could prove a problem came swiftly, prompting civil-society leaders to meet Saakashvili in early 2004 to warn him that the disregard shown to the opposition would harm Georgian democracy. “It is time to end the revolution and revert to [steadier] governance” they stated in a joint declaration.
I hope that this lesson is learned by other pro-democracy movements if the new wave of freedom sweeping over the former Soviet space continues. In a sense, this feeds into Christopher Walker's op-ed written for Eurasianet that I posted yesterday. Democracy doesn't just start and end with "revolutions." The process, as in the West, has to continue for some time after so that positive trends are irreversible. A harder task, of course, is going to be to change deep-set mentalities in Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian society. Unfortunately, however, that's going to take generations.

The full article can be read online here.

Tag: | | |

Any opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of any publication or organization that he may be working for now, in the past or in the future.