Is Georgia on the brink of a 'day of rage'?
A lack of economic progress may help account for mounting protests against Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili. On Sunday, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a mostly peaceful rally. A 'day of rage' is slated for May 25.
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"Not much has changed in the past year, the economic and political situations have remained pretty stagnant," says George Khutsishvili, director of the independent International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi. "I can't see anything new that would suggest that Saakashvili would fall. It's true that there's widespread discontent against him, but not so outspoken as in the past.... The main problems are that people's incomes are flat, there is high unemployment, and many people are pessimistic about the country's prospects for development. People hear a lot about reform [from Saakashvili] but see no positive changes in their lives."Skip to next paragraph
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Rose revolution 2.0?
The wave of protests began Saturday with a rally of about 10,000 in downtown Tbilisi, followed by several smaller demonstrations around the city that continued on Monday. Experts say it could develop into a drawn-out street confrontation lasting weeks, such as the 2003 "Rose Revolution" that brought Saakashvili to power – a formula that the opposition has twice tried to imitate.
"It's not a revolution yet, but it could develop into one," says Iosif Shatberashvili, head of the opposition Labor Party. "These actions are headed by Nino Burzhanadze, and she knows it is useless to talk to Saakashvili, that the authorities never keep their promises."
Ms. Buzhanadze, a former Rose Revolution colleague of Saakashvili, is seen as one of the strongest and most level-headed of the fractious opposition leaders. She was the target of an elaborate hoax by state-run TV last year, which depicted her in a fake documentary as a puppet of the Kremlin.
Mr. Okruashvili, the former Defense minister, is a more volatile personality, but his ties to the military – which has been implicated in mutiny before – may be a source of concern.
"On Wednesday, the Public Assembly and Okruashvili's newly formed Georgian Party plan to march, and nobody knows how it's going to end," says Mamuka Nebieridze, head of the independent Tbilisi Center of Euro-Atlantic Studies.
He adds that it's not clear what the opposition really wants. "Part of the opposition maintains that free elections are impossible [under Saakashvili], and they want to change that. Another part thinks it is possible to come to terms with the authorities, and to have fair elections that are not marred by fraud....
"Nothing has changed in the past year, and probably that's the main reason people are protesting now: They want changes," says Mr. Nebieridze.