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November 7th challenges

Friday, October 24
The first anniversary of November 7, 2007 approaches. On that day the Georgian administration brutally attacked peaceful protesters on hunger strike, using tear gas and beating the crowd with clubs. Televised scenes of this shocked the world and considerably discredited Georgia’s claims to be a beacon of democracy. Moreover, later in that evening a special police squad raided and closed down leading opposition TV channel Imedi (“Hope”), thus almost destroying any hope for democratic development in the country. Thankfully the President made the correct decision, resigning and holding emergency Presidential elections.

The opposition wants to commemorate this day with a protest action. How this will be undertaken and with what consequences is difficult to predict, having in mind that around a quarter of the country’s territory is occupied by the enemy and Russian tanks are 50 kilometres from the capital, Tbilisi. The opposition itself is not homogeneous. The non-Parliamentary version plans to organize permanent actions, whereas the Parliamentary opposition argues that street rallies might be damaging for the country. MP Gia Tortladze, who was one of the leaders of the opposition this time last year, states that we have to think whose game we would be playing by taking part in street actions. He maintains that the non-Parliamentary opposition is undermining the country.

The opposition is also not united in its demands. The various groups have different agendas: to hold snap Presidential and Parliamentary elections, to hold permanent protest action until these demands are met, to organize just a one day protest rally as a commemoration action and delay more serious moves until spring and to insist on certain moderate concessions from the authorities, such as guarantees of freedom for the media, and so on. The opposition remembers last year, when several hundred thousand people came out into the streets in the hope that the current administration would resign, and then drift away very disappointed when this did not happen. This is why the opposition is careful and selective in its slogans. Too much expectation could backfire on it.

The administration is promising that there will be no obstacles to a peaceful rally within the framework of legal order. It is hard to believe that it will repeat the last year’s errors.

On the other hand it almost entirely controls the TV stations and will try to label the protest rallies as pro-Russian acts, thus discrediting the opposition. We should also realise that the Russian media will cover any protest in Georgia with the greatest of pleasure. This represents a challenge for the opposition.

Everything will depend on the population of Georgia: if there are not huge numbers of protesters in the streets the authorities could ignore them and remain secure. But public opinion in Georgia is very hard to predict, quick to alter and sometimes quite illogical. For instance, some quite honestly believe that Georgia emerged victorious in the August war (!) The motives people will have for attending or not attending the protests may be mysterious even to them.

Political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze does not expect to see the same number of people in the streets as last year. Fellow analyst Archil Gegeshidze also expects nothing serious will happen. What, in fact, could such protest rallies achieve? With the current election code and centralized administrative resources you could conduct as many new elections as you wanted, but the result would still be single party leadership, by the same party. However, it cannot be denied that, given the absence of dialogue between the ruling majority and the non-Parliamentary opposition, street protests might facilitate the democratization of the country.

The Second Democratic Wave should be not only a slogan but something essential and practical: the media should have some relief from interference, the court system should be reorganised, the election code should be adjusted and private property should be better protected. The healthy practice of timely resignation, which happens regularly in Western democracies, should also be adopted more commonly by the country’s senior figures