Four years ago, Georgian protestors—outraged by alleged voter fraud and election irregularities—stormed the streets of Tbilisi and peaceably ousted their president with roses instead of rifles. This so-called Rose Revolution set the stage for the progressive, pro-Western presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, a Columbia University-educated reformer with an avowed commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
But in early November 2007, with one year remaining in his first term, Saakashvili’s commitment came into international question when he arrested a new round of protestors who this time threatened his own government. He also declared an eight-day state of emergency and temporarily shut down a national television station.
Saakashvili recently decided to stand for re-election a year early, in a Jan. 5 snap poll aimed at re-establishing his administration’s authority and legitimacy. The early January vote will also contain a referendum on whether the former Soviet Republic should pursue its bid to join NATO, which Saakashvili contends is critical to the country’s security and democracy.
In a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat, Georgia’s ambassador in Washington, Vasil Sikharulidze, said the recent political turbulence was unfortunate, but he defended the administration’s response and voiced optimism that it would not affect his country’s NATO bid.
Sikharulidze conceded that the protestors had some credible complaints about their government and especially Georgian election law, but he said they got carried away and ultimately attacked police.“They were peaceful at the very beginning, but they grew violent,” the ambassador charged. “The number of demonstrators became smaller but they were more radicalized. They attacked police, which were deployed passively and without riot gear. That was something that would not be acceptable for any state.
“The riot police were used to calm down the situation, restore public order, and ensure public safety,” he added. “Their demands were demands which should be solved within democratic institutions and not in the streets.”
According to Sikharulidze, some of the protestors’ complaints stemmed from what they viewed as an unfair election code. He said many of those concerns have since been addressed by the Saakashvili administration, including making ballot access easier for parliamentary candidates, reorganizing the Central Election Commission, and allowing international election observers at any polling station at any time without question.
“These issued have been discussed within democratic institutions and a consensus was reached,” Sikharulidze noted.
Saakashvili, in an op-ed published on Dec. 6 in the Wall Street Journal, also defended his government’s response to the protests as necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of major political upheaval fueled by violent radicals and “subversive activity by foreign intelligence agents.”
Ambassador Sikharulidze said Georgian authorities uncovered evidence that Russia, which is at serious political and economic odds with its neighbor to the south, tried to fuel the unrest to further erode the Georgian government’s stability.
“A dangerous pattern was emerging,” Saakashvili wrote. “As the democratically elected leadership of the country, we believed that some in the opposition were trying to short-circuit the democratic process that had built over the last four years, substituting the street for the ballot box.
“Reluctantly, and knowing it would frustrate our friends in the West who have championed our democratic and economic liberalism, we concluded we had no choice but to prevent a further deterioration of the situation. To do otherwise would have meant abandoning the hopes, dreams and need of our population to the demands of radical forces,” the president argued.
Sikharulidze added that some of the unrest undoubtedly stemmed from a portion of the Georgian population who fear they are being left behind by the nation’s rapidly changing economy. Double-digit economic growth was expected in 2007 and beyond, and Georgia’s foreign direct investment has skyrocketed from only a couple hundred million dollars in 2005 to about .5 billion in 2007.
“Despite this growth, we still have a high unemployment rate—almost 14 percent,” the ambassador said. “We have conducted the government with a very liberal, rapid reform agenda. Reforms always create a portion of people who are not very happy with this change.
“Some powers took advantage of the situation and tried to somehow tie it to the constitution,” he added.
Sikharulidze disputed media reports that Georgian police trashed a major television studio before shutting it down for a period of several days during the protests. He charged that the station’s owner, a “Russian oligarch,” had taken to the air calling for a “direct overthrow of the constitutional government.”
“They were also spreading disinformation that the special police stormed a main cathedral,” he said. “That’s very sensitive. The situation is already tense and they were sending this message that is very inflammatory. Georgia is a very Christian nation.”
Sikharulidze noted that any damages to the station were minor and the government has promised to pay for them. “It was not badly damaged—they are already back on the air with a test,” the ambassador said. “The important thing about this is that officials made the statement that if there is damage, it will be reimbursed by the government.”
Sikharulidze acknowledged that the violence could give Georgia’s relatively new government a black eye in the international community, but he said he hopes the rest of the world considers what was at stake for the government and Georgian society in general.
“There are some concerns that this event happened, in general, but the important thing is the measures that were employed to solve this crisis were entirely in line with the constitution and democratic principles,” he said. “Democratic institutions should be able to defend the general order. The elections are the way political parties should try to come to power, not through demonstrations and violence in the streets.”
He added: “It was not a pleasant fact, but it was something that had to be done to ensure order and the safety of the population.”
Sikharulidze also had some blunt words for Russia, whose response to the Georgian crisis he says did nothing to reverse several years of increasingly chilly relations between the two countries. “They made inflammatory statements,” he argued. “They were not helpful at all. They tried to keep it unresolved.”
Russia, concerned about Georgia’s NATO bid and its warm reception from the West, has placed an embargo on all exports from the Black Sea nation. “There is no trade whatsoever between Georgia and Russia. We can’t even send mail to Russia,” Sikharulidze said. “Russia was the major trade partner for Georgia and I think it was actually one of their objectives to badly damage Georgia’s economy, but it didn’t work.”
Instead, according to Sikharulidze, Georgian businesses have responded by clamoring to find new markets, with great success in nations such as Europe, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia. “Georgia’s economy is growing even faster right now,” he said. “These are more stable markets.”
Sikharulidze also believes it is unfortunate that Russia has been so skeptical of Georgia’s NATO bid. “This does not pose any threat to them,” he said. “Our aspirations are not directed against anybody, especially Russia. We would like to establish very close and friendly relations with Russia, but you know, this is a two-way street. We are doing everything possible to achieve this objective.”
The ambassador expressed hope that the 26-nation bloc comprising NATO will soon welcome Georgia into its fold, although he was careful not to put a timeline on it, saying only that continued economic and political reform will ultimately guide the way.
“Most of our friends say it is not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” he said. “NATO membership is important because first of all, we think it’s an alliance based on shared values. We’d like to share responsibilities and capabilities with other countries who share our values. And we strongly believe in the concept of collective defense.”
In the meantime, he voiced optimism that January’s election and continued economic growth will help prevent any more ugly political incidents like the one that marred the country’s reputation last fall.
“Our democratic institutions are strong,” Sikharulidze insisted. “The democratic process should continue and there is a clear sign that is happening.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer or The Washington Diplomat.