An Uprising in the Caucasus, but No Arab Spring in Georgia

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Police detain protesters during clashes in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, on May 26, 2011

By Thursday afternoon, it was hard to recognize the voice of Nino Burjanadze, the Georgian opposition leader, who normally speaks as though she has a bullhorn built into her throat. The night before, she had led a street protest meant to overthrow President Mikheil Saakashvili, her former ally turned political nemesis. But riot police had moved in with tear gas and rubber bullets, beating scores of people and arresting hundreds, and the would-be revolution failed. Holed up in her office the next day, Burjanadze fielded calls and waited for the police to knock on the door. "There's practically no one here," she said in an exhausted whisper. "Everyone has already been arrested."

Considering the government's claims against her — which include plotting with Russia to oust her country's President — it seems incredible that Burjanadze has not yet been detained. On Wednesday night, as more than a thousand protesters fled the police, two people, including a policeman, were run over and killed by a speeding car, and police later claimed that the car was part of Burjanadze's caravan. She denies this. During a military parade the following day along Rustaveli Avenue, the same thoroughfare in the capital where the revolt had taken place the night before, the President also claimed the protests were organized abroad — a hint at Russian involvement. "I know why they did this," Saakashvili told the crowds gathered for the parade. "[It was] in order to take revenge against the Georgian army for showing resistance in 2008," when Georgia lost about a fifth of its territory after a weeklong war with Russia.

It became worse for Burjanadze when police released an audio recording on Thursday, apparently from a tapped phone conversation, to support the claims of her collusion with Moscow. In the undated tape, she and her son allegedly discuss plans for a revolution, agreeing that an "Egypt scenario" in Georgia would be worth the death of 100 or even 500 people. "The land of every nation that achieved something is watered with blood," her son Anzor Bitsadze apparently says in the recording, whose authenticity Burjanadze does not deny. "The society is divided. They are divided concerning Russia too," Burjanadze says later in the tape. "Fifty percent do not see [Russia] as an enemy at all ... Everyone supports a close relationship with Russia."

That would be an overstatement. Saakashvili, who came to power through a popular uprising known as the Rose Revolution in 2003, has infuriated Russia by aligning Georgia firmly with Europe and the U.S. The devastating war with Russia in 2008 hurt his approval ratings, but it also shored up his Manichaean view of the world, which holds that integration with the West is Georgia's only hope of standing up to Russian bullying. So he still enjoys strong public support, hovering around 30% to 40% in the polls, while Burjanadze has struggled to keep her approval ratings above 1%. Much of her unpopularity comes down to her perceived ties with Moscow.

So the failed uprising on Wednesday night, combined with the police's tape of her apparent plotting, is only likely to help Saakashvili. The most damning part of the recording seems to come at the end, when her son apparently brings up the possibility that Georgian troops will open fire on the demonstration. "We will withstand the first strike," he apparently says in the recording. "And then let them deal with the GRU special forces" — GRU is the Russian military intelligence.

Reached by TIME a few hours after the tape was released on the Interior Ministry's website (and then aired on all the major Georgian networks), Burjanadze struggled to explain away how bad it all looked. "I'll tell it to you straight," she said. "If I was really working with the Russians, then Saakashvili would not be in power today." When her son mentioned GRU, he was only speaking hypothetically, she said. "[Saakashvili's] special forces would clearly not be able to beat back the Russian special forces. We all remember perfectly well how quickly the war ended between Georgia and Russia."

But the fact that no Russian paratroopers swept in to help Burjanadze's revolt will not be enough to convince the Georgian public, most of whom already believe that Russia was behind the unrest on Wednesday night, says Alex Rondeli, a prominent political analyst in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. "It's ridiculous to assume that our northern neighbor is sitting on the fence when this is going on," Rondeli says.

Moscow has made no secret of its desire to see Saakashvili thrown out of office. In 2008, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin famously told the President of France, according to a French official, that he wanted to hang Saakashvili "by the balls." But that does not mean the Kremlin would use Burjanadze to get the job done, says Sergei Markov, a parliamentarian and spin doctor for Putin's political party, United Russia. "This was Burjanadze's adventure," Markov tells TIME. "Everyone told her that things were not ready for this, but she went ahead with it anyway."

Markov has lobbied the Russian government for years to start using what he calls the American model of regime change — by supporting local opposition movements who want to topple their government. "We shouldn't be against color revolutions. Color revolutions are the 21st century means of grabbing political power," Markov says. "And we have to support all pro-Russian forces who want to come to power in the former Soviet space ... The problem is we don't yet have the institutions in place to do this."

It is impossible to tell whether Burjanadze's failed uprising was indeed a practice run in this up-and-coming Kremlin strategy, or whether her party was acting alone, inspired by the Egypt scenario, which toppled the regime in Cairo earlier this year. But either way it seems even the world's most hapless opposition movements — and the governments who support them — are catching on to the revolutionary tactics of the 21st century.