Levan Gachechiladze: Georgians know their President is terrified of democracy

Saakashvilli has put himself beyond all normal processes of accountability
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The Independent Online

One year on from last summer's futile and disastrous war with Russia, Georgia today is further away from becoming the kind of open, democratic and united country its people want than at any time since before the 2003 Rose Revolution. Much of the bomb-damaged infrastructure is in the process of being repaired, but the wounds inflicted on Georgian society show no sign of healing.

At the source of this problem is a culture of denial at the highest levels of government. Instead of acknowledging the failure of his policies and engaging in an honest reflection on the shortcomings of his leadership, President Mikheil Saakashvili has become even more divorced from reality, even more remote from the concerns of his people and even more determined to cling onto power at any cost.

As Abkhazia and South Ossetia drift further towards de facto independence, and the Georgian people struggle to cope under the strain of a crippling economic downturn, Saakashvili enjoys the comfort of his opulent new presidential palace, built at vast public expense, surrounded by his court of cronies and yes-men, indifferent to the anger and frustration of the people demanding change outside. Meanwhile, the country remains trapped in limbo.

The Georgian people refuse to countenance a return to the corruption and autocracy of the past. Yet they cannot move forward towards their goal of becoming a modern European democracy under a regime that has lost all legitimacy at home and all credibility abroad. Something has to give.

Although returned to power in 2008 on a promise to clean up Georgian politics, Saakashvili knew he risked losing a free and fair contest for power, so he set about rigging the outcome, just as Eduard Shevardnadze, the president he ousted, had tried to do four years earlier. This marked the ultimate betrayal of the Rose Revolution.

Saakashvili's campaign borrowed freely from the tool kit of classic authoritarian methods. A peaceful opposition demonstration was violently suppressed by the police two months before the election, leading to hundreds of injuries among unarmed demonstrators. A state of emergency was declared and Georgia's leading private television station, Imedi, was raided and closed for criticising the government. Coverage in the state and other media was heavily slanted in favour of Saakashvili. Public employees were pressured to support him and state resources were used to bolster his campaign. On polling day, the turnout in some electoral precincts reached an incredible 100 per cent, with ballot-stuffing actually witnessed by monitors.

Having failed to secure his grip on power by legitimate means, Saakashvili sought to rally the country behind him with an act of military adventurism. This was the real reason for his desperate and bungled attempt to impose an armed solution to the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Inevitably, this effort ended in humiliation, with Georgia's international reputation tarnished and the prospect of the country's reunification more remote than ever.

In any normal democratic society, the consequence of such a costly blunder would have been a change of leader. But Saakashvili has put himself beyond the normal processes of accountability. Opposition supporters are bugged and arrested, new restrictions of freedom of assembly are being implemented and Imedi is back on air, now owned by an ally of the President and under the editorial control of a former defence ministry spin doctor.

Anyone who cares to look past Saakashvili's empty pro-Western rhetoric will see his style of governing is essentially the same as Vladimir Putin's model of "managed democracy". Saakashvili and Putin may be bitter enemies, but it is a mistake to see them as opposites. They represent competing national franchises of the same ideology.

Georgians want their country to become a normal European democracy, enjoying friendly and productive relations with all of its neighbours. Those with Georgia's best interests at heart need to recognise that Saakashvili has become the main obstacle to achieving that goal. Georgia's real democrats are in opposition.

The author was the main opposition candidate in Georgia's 2008 election and heads a non-governmental organisation, Defend Georgia

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