A vicious power fight between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili appears to be pushing Georgia fast into a vortex of political confusion with unpredictable results.
And the fight, as of today, is quite literal. On February 8, scores of pro-Ivanishvili protesters and ex-prisoners gathered outside Tbilisi's National Library with the apparent intention of preventing pro-Saakashvili parliamentarians and other supporters from entering the building to hear the president's annual speech to the country.
Police struggled to maintain any semblance of order; the situation calmed only when, to the crowd's cheers, a tight-lipped Interior Minister Irakly Gharibashvili arrived on the scene and went on the air to ask ex-prisoners to leave the territory surrounding the National Library.
The president's speech, originally scheduled for 6pm, began three hours later, from the presidential residence, and was boycotted by Georgian Dream MPs. Sounding familiar themes, Saakashvili underlined that the national priorities of independence, freedom, territorial integrity and European integration do not belong to one party alone or one person alone, and noted that "cohabitation," in Georgian, means living together to build a state. The Georgian Dream's response, for now, boiled down to televised comments by Interior Minister Gharibashvili defending the police performance outside the National Library and pledging to investigate alleged violations of the law.
The brouhaha, though, is more than just a one-time flare-up in a city known for getting into fisticuffs over politics. Rather, it is raising the question of whether or not Georgia is moving further back into its chaotic political past, based on personal fiefdoms, rather than into a stable future based on rule of law.
Under Georgia's constitution, Saakashvili is obliged to make his speech to parliament in, yes, parliament itself. Except that, as the headline of the daily Rezonansi read on February 8, "The Prime Minister Didn't Allow the President into Parliament."
On February 7, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, a senior member of the Georgian Dream, announced that, much as the ruling coalition respects the constitution and the president's rights, it won't allow the president into parliament for the speech without first a decision about how to reform the constitution to change the president's powers.
"[W]e want the president’s address to be made in a parliament which is empowered with appropriate authority and not in a parliament whose decisions might be unilaterally overturned by the president,” Usupashvili said, in apparent reference to the presidential veto.
In the commentary that followed the decision, the concern seemed to be not so much about honoring a constitutional requirement, no matter what the feelings against the president or the prime minister, but in making sure that each side gets its own.
"What is he going to say that's new?" Ivanishvili scoffed on-air about Saakashvili's speech. "New lies, probably."
But Saakashvili is not a politician easily silenced. Shut out of parliament, he decided to head to the National Library in Tbilisi, instead.
Senior Georgian Dream MP Levan Berdzenishvili drily commented that the Library would be an understandable setting if the president "will be talking about books," Interpressnews reported.
With the Library's front door decorated with brooms, a reference to the prison abuse scandal that helped end the UNM's control of parliament, and a nearly all-male mob packed into the surrounding streets, the scene was set. But the president didn't come.
Could not come, supporters angrily maintain.
Some UNM parliamentarians were allegedly beaten as they tried to enter the National Library, and were forced to retreat; live footage showed Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, one of Saakashvili's closest allies, yelling at protesters, who, in turn, screamed for his blood. "Don't let him in!" the cries rang out.
Any thought that this was the country that had been the first ex-Soviet republic in the South Caucasus to allow a peaceful change of power via elections fell quickly by the wayside.
The focus now is not on respecting established procedures, try as some may, but on that age-old Soviet-era question: Who's guilty?
Interior Minister Gharibashvili, who has no prior police experience, argued that officers had formed a corridor to allow Saakashvili's team to enter the National Library, but that the president's supporters had, "for some reason," headed "toward the people" instead.
The president's team maintained it had seen no sign of a corridor, and that no preparations had been made by the interior ministry to provide for their safety.
Both sides claim the law's on their side. Both sides claim they respect the Constitution. And both sides, as one Tbilisi resident remarked with a sigh, seem to be heading ever more steadily toward serious, full-fledged conflict.
*This blog was amended on February 12, 2013 to note that Georgia was the first ex-Soviet republic in the South Caucasus, rather than outside of the Baltics, to experience a change of government via elections.