Leading article: A president's democratic credentials are on trial

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The Independent Online

The irony is grim and inescapable. In 2003, tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, to protest against the corrupt regime of President Eduard Shevardnadze. A young US-educated reformer called Mikheil Saakashvili was swept into power on the back of this wave of popular disaffection. The "Rose revolution" was hailed in Western capitals as a triumph for democracy.

Four years on, vast crowds of Georgians have again taken to the streets, but this time to protest against the perceived corruption of President Saakashvili's administration. Yet instead of handing over power like his predecessor, Mr Saakashvili has suppressed the demonstrations with riot police and declared a state of emergency. He has acceded to the demands of the protesters to hold early elections, but dissent has very visibly been silenced. So is this a case of a revolution devouring its own children; of a once-feted liberator turning oppressor?

In this complex and violent part of the world, context is important. As is the case in all the fragments of the former Soviet Union, huge disparities of wealth have grown up between the richest and the poorest, making politics a combustible affair. And then there is the disruptive presence of a belligerent Russia on Georgia's doorstep to consider. Relations between the two countries have been in the deep freeze since 2003, when the pro-Moscow President Shevardnadze was ejected from power. Georgia's plans to host a Western oil pipeline from the Caspian, its push to regain sovereignty over two breakaway pro-Russian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and concerted attempts to join Nato have all irritated the Kremlin. And Moscow's response has certainly been grossly disproportionate. Transport links have been cut. The price of gas exports to its southern neighbour has been ruthlessly hiked up. Last year, Russia even expelled a large number of Georgians living on its territory and imposed a blockade on Georgian food exports. There has also been credible evidence of Russian interference within Georgia itself. So President Saakashvili's claims that "Russian special services" are behind the latest unrest should not be dismissed out of hand.

But there are a number of problems with this justification for the imposition of a state of emergency. Deep as Russia's influence may go in Georgia, it is difficult to believe that Moscow alone was able to bring some 50,000 protesters on to the streets. There is clearly a large degree of popular discontent in Georgia, irrespective of Moscow's meddling. And it is possible to see why. Mr Saakashvili has managed to increase tax revenues, clamp down on local-level corruption, and has embarked on reform of the public sector. But complaints that the president has himself been prepared to disregard the rule of law to achieve his ends have been multiplying. The vast sums that have been poured into the defence budget also show a distinctly questionable sense of priorities for a supposedly socially-reforming government. But most damaging of all is the heavy-handed response of the government to these protests. Even Georgia's human rights ombudsman was among those beaten by police this week. This is not the behaviour of a democratic regime.

For now, President Saakashvili can still rely on the goodwill of the West. But that support is dependent on maintaining the rule of law, even in the face of outside provocation. After his blunder in declaring a state of emergency, Mr Saakashvili made the right decision in bringing forward elections. But those polls must take place on time, and without interference. Otherwise, the president's democratic credentials will surely be damaged beyond repair.