Protests in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, sparked by the government raid on a leading independent television station, have exposed broad popular distrust for the country's leadership. The demonstrations have cleared the way for reforms, but it remains unclear whether this new potential for change can be realized.
Popular frustration had been primed to explode in Georgia for months. The raid against the Rustavi 2 independent TV station was merely a catalyst that turned popular discontent with government policies and, especially the Ministry of Internal Affairs, into the wave of mass protests.
A severe and sustained economic crisis, combined with persistent and rampant corruption, had worked to steadily erode popular confidence in the government. A record low 6 percent of the population expressed support for the government in one opinion survey in September.
Support for law-enforcement agencies - notably the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of State Security - was traditionally the lowest among all executive agencies. As early as December 1998, polling performed USAID-led team found that 75 percent of respondents did not trust the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
A lack of confidence in law enforcement agencies quickly transformed into resentment. Minister of Internal Affairs Kakha Targamadze became a particular target of popular wrath. The interior minister, acting with the support of President Eduard Shevardnadze, was frequently regarded by analysts and independent media as a rogue defender of a conservative political agenda. At the same time, he was portrayed as presiding over a corrupt security establishment.
In recent months, an investigation by Rustavi 2 provided details on the financial machinations of the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Internal affairs. The reports said that the government agencies engaged in racketeering and mismanagement of state property.
At the same time, popular discontent with security agencies was building, Georgia's political foundation was starting to crumble. The country's political stability had been teetering since May 2001, when Shevardnadze put forward a proposal on the re-establishment of a cabinet of ministers and the prime-ministerial position.
The proposal sparked an open confrontation between reformed-minded forces and conservatives. The so-called reform team was headed by Parliamentary Chairman Zurab Zhvania, a leading contender for the prime minister position, and by the former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili. Targamadze was a prominent leader of the conservatives.
Saakshvili, before his September 19 resignation as Justice Minister, directly accused Targamadze and State Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze of corruption. Meanwhile, conservative forces parliament bitterly opposed Zhvania's possible rise to executive powers.
Shevardnadze sided with the conservatives, stripping Zhvania of his nominal support. As a result, the governing Citizens Union of Georgia collapsed when Shevardnadze stepped down from its chairmanship in mid September. Saakashvili, upon resigning shortly thereafter, said that "reform of the government from within is impossible."
October 23 by-elections in Georgia proved that popular support for reform-minded forces was on the rise. Saakashvili won a landslide victory in Tbilisi's most prestigious district. However, the de facto distribution of power, marked by the re-appointment of the conservatives to executive positions, failed to reflect popular support for reform.
Fears that the conservatives, in raiding Rustavi 2 on November 30, were about to embark on a campaign of repression of free speech caused thousands of Georgians to take to the streets. By November 31, the protests had already moved beyond the Rustavi 2 case per se, and had taken on an anti-government character with calls for the resignations of key security officials.
Shevardnadze attempted to protect the Minister of Interior and the Prosecutor General announcing that their removal would trigger his own resignation. Thus, the president tried to play on internal divisions within parliament, as many MPs were not prepared to endorse an absolute political victory by Zhvania, who would have assumed the powers of the president ad interim if Shevardnadze resigned. Zhvania countered by announcing his own resignation on November 1. Sheverdnadze, then, had no choice but to dismiss his entire cabinet.
Today, Georgia's political forces are bracing for new battles over the country's future direction. Zhvania's political credibility was greatly enhanced by his behavior during the crisis. Conversely, Shevardnadze's ratings sunk to near-zero support because of his backing for the much-resented law enforcement agencies.
The demonstrations have given people a taste of the power of popular action. Many in Georgia now have renewed belief in the possibility for democratic development - a concept that they thought had already been squandered, consumed by a period of protracted stagnation.
However, it is far from certain that the government crisis of early November will actually result in substantive change. The power of conservative forces - the former ministers, ex-communist nomenklatura and new business-clans - can not be underestimated.
Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and Research Director of the UNAs program for applied research.