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Fuller: Georgian Leader's Popularity Has Dramatically Fallen

Interviewee: Elizabeth Fuller, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 9, 2007

Elizabeth Fuller, an expert on Georgian affairs for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, says that while President Mikheil Saakashvili is regarded in the United States and the West as “a model democrat,” his popularity has plummeted in Georgia. Fuller says the protests in Tbilisi, which sparked a state of emergency, were due in part to “widespread popular resentment” at Saakashvili for failure to deliver on economic promises and lack of progress on electoral and judicial reforms.

There have been major protests in the capital of Georgia against President Mikheil Saakashvili, who ordered a state of temporary emergency in the capital and just today has announced new presidential elections in January, a year ahead of schedule. Could you provide some background?

The perception in the West is that Saakashvili is a model democrat. This is based very largely on the fact that he has a Western education [he graduated from Columbia University Law School] and also by virtue of the contrast with Eduard Shevardnadze [a former Soviet foreign minister, later president of Georgia], whom he succeeded. Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House have been questioning this image almost from the very beginning. After he was elected president in 2004, Saakashvili had the parliament amend the constitution to strengthen the power of the president. Many things he has done have seemed to cut legal corners, and have been very questionable like arresting Shevardnadze’s associates and then letting them buy their way out of jail.

There was a major scandal last year when interior ministry personnel were implicated in beating up and murdering a young banker and Saakashvili wouldn’t hear any criticism of the interior minister and would not agree to sack him.

What about the current protests? Are they calling for Saakashvili to step down?

It would be mistaken to say that the opposition is demanding Saakashvili’s ouster. There is widespread popular resentment and anger at Saakashvili that he has not delivered on his past promises. True, an awful lot of money has been pumped into the country; there’s been a lot of investment, but there has not yet been a trickle-down effect that would benefit the population as a whole.

There was a report last month that former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili has been arrested on corruption charges, days after he had accused the president of ordering political killings. What’s the story here?

Okruashvili was defense minister under Saakashvili and was fired almost exactly a year ago. He then said he was going to retire from politics, but for the last six months at least there have been rumors in Tbilisi that he was going to launch a new political party in opposition to Saakashvili. In late September he went public with those damaging accusation against Saakashvili in a live TV interview. And he also said then that he had created a new political party, which was called the Movement for United Georgia. Two days after that, he was arrested and charged with abuse of his official position. There had been rumors over the last year that not everything that he did when he was defense minister was absolutely legal. He is suspected of having engaged in a huge arms-buying spree and of virtually having had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted to do or buy whatever he wanted without having to get Saakashvili’s approval beforehand.

Is he personally wealthy?

It’s honestly difficult to say. These sorts of rumors circulate in the Georgian press but it’s extremely difficult to evaluate. Okruashvili’s arrest served as a catalyst to bring the opposition together. Georgian opposition parties are extremely weak and as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, they tend to quarrel amongst themselves rather than create a united front against the authority. In early October ten opposition parties with quite diverse ideologies joined together and drafted a manifesto outlining ten demands they wanted to make on Saakashvili.

What are these?

They want genuinely free elections; they want more progress on creating an independent judiciary—something which NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] is also bullying Georgia about. In fact the lack of an independent judiciary is probably at this stage the single largest obstacle to Georgia getting seriously considered for NATO membership at the NATO summit next year in Bucharest. The opposition spent the whole month of October touring the country, trying to gain popular support and they then convened this mass rally in Tbilisi last Friday, at which something like fifty thousand people turned out. The rally was intended to stress several of their political demands such as freer elections.

Saakashvili has been twice to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and he comes across as a vigorous proponent of democracy, so these accusations come as a bit of a surprise to many Americans.

Certainly he presents a democratic face to the West and another face at home, but even at home he insists that he is acting as a democrat. Yesterday he declared a state of emergency throughout the country and a state of emergency means that all independent TV stations will have to stop broadcasting and the only television news available will be all from the state broadcaster. And he said, “We have to do this in the name of defending democratic principles”—a statement which doesn’t really add up.

What about the Russians? He has consistently been claiming that the Russians are trying to overthrow him. Of course we know that the Russians have troops in two breakaway parts of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. What is the relationship with Russia right now?

The relations with Russia have been very tense and very bad for most of the past two years since Russia cut off gas supplies to Georgia in January 2006. Then in March 2006 the Russians imposed a ban on all Georgian imports including Georgian wines.

Are those bans still in effect?

Yes, the bans are still in effect.

And the gas is still cut off?

Georgia is getting large quantities of natural gas from a field in Azerbaijan. So Georgia is now not so vulnerable to energy blackmail as it was two or three years ago. But again, Azerbaijan is getting itself in a position of strength and there have been signals from Baku [the capital] that they may want to up the price which Georgia pays, which is not what Saakashvili would call good neighborly behavior.

Saakashvili came out yesterday in his televised address openly accusing four Georgian opposition leaders by name of having acted on Moscow’s pretext in organizing the protests of the last week. I would say these allegations are very definitely open to question. One of the ten principles enshrined in the manifesto which the opposition adopted in early October was absolute commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration. The opposition, if anything, takes an even harder line with regard to Russia than Saakashvili does.

Are the NATO countries surprised, upset? Clearly, this sets back chances of Georgia getting into NATO, right?

The violent overreaction by police has certainly put a very, very large question mark over whether democratic institutions in Georgia, including the police, are sufficiently advanced for Georgia to advance to the next stage to graduation if you like, of obtaining NATO membership. The Council of Europe and the U.S. State Department came out overnight expressing concerns that the police had overreacted and calling on both sides to maintain calm and to resume dialogue.

What do you hear from Tbilisi today?

There are still up to a hundred people in hospital, including some police officers. It’s not clear whether any opposition leaders actually are still in consultations with the Georgian parliament speaker, Nino Burdzhanadze, who has tried to act as a sort of conduit between the opposition and Saakashvili. Four years ago she was one of those leaders who forged the so-called Rose Revolution. Parliament has to vote tomorrow on endorsing the state of emergency but given that Saakashvili has something like a two-thirds majority in parliament, this won’t constitute a problem for him.

So have demonstrations now stopped in the streets?

The state of emergency specifically bans any demonstrations and the opposition party leaders have called on their supporters to comply with this, not to rock the boat.

What about elections in Georgia?

In December last year Saakashvili pushed through parliament an amendment to the constitution that would allow him to postpone the parliamentary elections from next spring to next fall, concurrently with the presidential elections which are really not due until January 2009 [but will now take place in January 2008]. His rationale for not wanting to hold elections in the spring of next year is that’s when the Russian presidential elections are going to take place. I did not see any logic to that argument.

It doesn’t sound preposterous to hold presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time.

No, but the opposition is arguing that Saaakashvili’s own political party, the United National Movement, has lost so much popularity that if it faced parliamentary elections first, before the presidential elections, it might not get a majority. But if the two sets of elections are held concurrently, Saakashvili will push the merits of the National Movement, and he will be the National Movement’s candidate in the presidential elections.

In polling that has been done, is he still popular?

He is probably still the most popular single politician. But of the polls that I’ve seen over the past six to twelve months, none of them gives him more than 20 percent. And as far as I recall, the law of the presidential election would require him to get 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

When was he elected president?

January 2004.

And what kind of majority did he get then?

Something like 85 or 90 percent. There was absolutely no doubt about his popularity then. He was almost universally regarded as the man who would save Georgia and the man who would turn things around and guarantee everybody’s future. And it’s precisely because so many people have put so much hope on him and he hasn’t delivered that the backlash now has been so intense.

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