Nearly a week after a crackdown on opposition protests in Tbilisi, the international community has started to deliver its assessments of how Georgia, the former Soviet Union's reform prodigy, is handling its ongoing political crisis. The findings are far from rosy, but nevertheless remain upbeat.
A steady stream of senior envoys from the United States, the European Union, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all emphasized the same themes: The need to revoke the state of emergency introduced by President Mikheil Saakashvili on November 7 and to restore all independent broadcast media operations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For now, the Georgian government appears more inclined to take action on the state of emergency, a measure, approved by parliament on November 9, that officials have indicated would soon be lifted.
At a November 13 press conference in Tbilisi, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza told reporters that he understood from Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze that the state of emergency would be lifted by November 16, "in the next two to three days."
In what has become a standard line for Western diplomatic envoys, Bryza cited Saakashvili's call for early presidential elections and a plebiscite to set the date of parliamentary elections, plus an ongoing "real" dialogue between pro-government politicians and opposition party representatives as reasons for optimism. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"This is positive the way we've begun to see the demands of the opposition addressed, addressed, we hope, in a substantive way that will help make sure that after the elections everyone will have a stronger restored faith in Georgia's democratic processes," Bryza said.
Despite some media skepticism that the January 5 election date allows sufficient time for preparation, Bryza indicated that a conversation with Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili convinced him that "[t]here's plenty of time to organize an election that's free and fair."
At the same time, Bryza, in broad terms, acknowledged some of the challenges posed by the government's response to the November 7 protests; in particular, the shutdown of pro-opposition television broadcasters Imedi and Kavkasia, along with the limitation of broadcast news coverage to Georgian Public Television and Radio. "Beacons flicker," he said in reference to US President George W. Bush's 2005 characterization of Georgia as a "beacon of democracy." "They go on and off."
Whether or not officials will allow Imedi Television, one of Georgia's two independent national broadcasters, to reopen for operations in time for the vote remains unclear. The station was closed on November 7 as part of a criminal investigation. News Corp., the operator of Imedi Television, has stated that it does not expect the channel's broadcasts to resume for another three months. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Bryza, who does not speak Georgian, stated that he did not know what was the content of Imedi's broadcasts, but underlined that he had been instructed "to stress the importance" of reopening Imedi and pro-opposition Tbilisi television station Kavkasia. Closing two TV stations "sends shock waves" through the international community, he added.
The government has alleged that Imedi, engaging in unspecified cooperation with Moscow, encouraged protestors to take to the streets in a bid to overthrow Saakashvili's government. In connection with this supposed scheme, Saakashvili supporters maintain that Russian intelligence played a role in staging the opposition's five-day demonstrations in Tbilisi. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On November 12, those allegations were turned up a notch, as State Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze accused Russia of moving five T-72 tanks, four Grad rocket launchers, five armored vehicles, seven howitzers and roughly 200 soldiers of "largely Chechen ethnicity" into the breakaway region of Abkhazia. In remarks to the Itar-Tass news agency, Russian Ground Troops Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Valeri Yevnevich dismissed the allegations as "plain lies." The charges, he added, are "an act of provocation."
Bryza declined to comment on the report, but asserted in his opening statement that "no step should be taken now that in any way questions Georgia's territorial integrity." Bryza appeared to downplay Georgian claims that Russia attempted to interfere in Tbilisi's domestic political affairs. "I would be shocked based on our own conversations with Moscow over the past few days" if such involvement proved to be the case, he said.
In November 11 remarks to reporters in Tbilisi, European Union Special Representative to the South Caucasus Peter Semneby also expressed doubts about the Moscow connection.
Terming the relationship between Georgia and Russia "very complicated and tense," Semneby noted that "it's often possible that the role of Russia [in the unrest] is highlighted and underlined and that other actors are rather minimized or ignored."
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) co-rapporteur Matyas Eorsi told journalists on November 10 that while "[w]e are unable to exclude that it had some influence, I don't think it's helpful to refer to Russia excessively for getting out of the situation."
In a November 10 midnight meeting with foreign journalists, however, influential National Movement Party parliamentarian Giga Bokeria and State Minister Bakradze disagreed. "We understand that theories like that sometimes may sound unrealistic or like conspiracy theories for normal, Western European audiences . . . but they're all based on facts, unfortunately," said Bakradze.
Bokeria added that Russia's alleged "minimal plan" to damage Georgia's international reputation "to a certain degree was achieved," but pointed to the January 5 elections as a tool for showing that "Georgia's choice is democracy, liberal democracy."
The international community has similarly latched onto the vote as a critical chance to reaffirm Georgia's democratic credentials and to ensure that no damage is done to the country's expanding ties with institutions such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Noting that some US allies have questioned whether the Georgian government's response to the November 7 protests means that it is moving away from MAP [NATO Membership Action Plan[," Bryza stressed that "we don't share that view."
"[I]f Georgia's democratic system recovers and moves forward again" with the elections and plebiscite, Bryza said, the US will consider that the MAP criteria democratic government will have been met.
EU envoy Semneby stressed a similar outlook for ties between Tbilisi and Brussels. "[I]f Georgia is successful now in turning the agenda towards the presidential elections, if the presidential elections are carried out successfully, then there should not be any lasting damage to these relations," he said.
PACE co-rapporteur Eorsi, though, gave a harsher warning. The January 5 election and plebiscite, he said, "must be perfect, as good as in any country in the EU.'
"It's very hard to build trust," he added. "It's very easy to destroy it."
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor in Tbilisi.