Friday, April 9, 2010

Georgians Fear Russia’s Revanchism as Noghaideli Forecasts ‘Uprising’

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

The rhetoric of Zurab Noghaideli, one of the leaders of Georgia’s pro-Russian political grouping, is becoming increasingly inflammatory as the May 30 local elections near. The multi-millionaire and former prime-minister-turned-pro-Moscow-activist, Noghaideli first mentioned an “uprising” in February as a means to come to power if “public mood is not reflected” in the outcome of the local elections. But ever since the results of the public opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute came out on March 31, his conduct and rhetoric have become more aggressive and even pugnacious.

It is not the case that he personally or his party and associates scored well in the polls but quite the opposite; the figures unveiled by the reputable international research organization show that the public support is so slim that Noghaideli has almost no chance to have a meaningful representation in local municipalities, let alone replace the incumbent Tbilisi mayor, Gigi Ugulava.

Emboldened by multiple encounters with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putinand a “pact of friendship” he concluded with the Kremlin’s ruling United Russia party in February, Noghaideli apparently relies solely on outside support rather than on Georgian voters to bring about a “regime change” which he says is approaching. Instead of voicing his opinion on the improvement of townships, roads, public transportation, schools or the sewage system in cities and villages of Georgia – areas that the local election campaign should target – Noghaideli’s only promise is to oust President Saakashvili and his government. And the gory uprising in Kyrgyzstan seems to have further enhanced his “revolutionary spirit.”

On April 8 he said that the “Bishkek scenario” will be repeated in Tbilisi if the election results do not meet his expectations. The man, whose tenure as prime minister under President Saakashvili in 2005-2007 is remembered as purely “technocratic” and “apolitical” given that he rarely—if ever—talked about political issues or foreign policy for that matter, has gradually turned into a real soccer hooligan who seeks scuffles with the police and other unlawful actions. The day that Noghaideli threatened a “Kyrgyz scenario,” he and a few dozen of his supporters were trying to break into one of the printing houses in Tbilisi. They alleged that “their party materials were ready” but “they were not able to collect them” since “the typography was closed for inspection by the tax authorities”. A spokeswoman for the ministry of finance later explained that “the inspection was an ordinary practice” that had been scheduled some time ago “in accordance with the law.”

Shortly after the incident in which several of his associates were briefly detained and then released after paying a fine, Noghadeli organized a press conference. “The Georgian people will not tolerate ballot fraud; if this happens, there will be an uprising and a revolution.” When asked what forms of protest he will support, Noghaideli responded, “Every method will be used to destroy and uproot this government…Everyone will see everything soon.” Noghaideli’s party comrade Zviad Dzidziguri, who also participated in the “typography incident” added that “these kinds of incidents [scuffles with the police] will be more intensely used in the future.”

The opposition Christian Democratic Party in Georgian parliament strongly condemned Noghaideli’s “illegal actions aimed at purposefully straining the situation in the country, which is against Georgia’s national interests.” Irakli Alasania, allegedly a moderate oppositionist and himself a mayoral candidate, blamed the authorities instead. His ties with Noghaideli are a matter of never-ending speculation and controversy.

An interview by Vano Merabishvili, Georgia’s minister of internal affairs, given to the Russian Kommersant newspaper on April 7, provided Noghaideli with more reasons to escalate his bullish rhetoric. In the interview, Merabishvili predicted the pro-Russian force’s imminent defeat in the local elections. Warning Minister Merabishvili against ballot fraud, Noghaideli issued his own augury: “This may cost him his life,” the ex-premier said.

To Georgia, Kyrgyzstan is a faraway country with a different historical experience, aspirations and a contemporary political environment. Moreover, Georgia’s and Kyrgyzstan’s state institutions could not be any more different. But there is something that makes these countries, as distant and distinct as they may be, fall into the same category, at least in the thoughts and designs of Kremlin strategists; and it is Moscow’s claim that both are part of Russia’s sphere of influence.

On April 8, Manana Manjgaladze, President Saakashvili’s spokesperson said in a briefing: “Despite [Moscow’s] denials, according to the information available to us, it is absolutely obvious that Russia is bluntly interfering in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs and is trying to play geopolitical games at the expense of the Kyrgyz people.” The Kremlin’s overt meddling or not, Kyrgyzstan will come out of the crisis even weaker and more vulnerable than it was before and will become more susceptible to Russian manipulations.

If Georgia does not want to share the same fate, its state institutions must show maturity and its public, a deep commitment to sovereignty, democracy and freedom of choice before, during and after the local elections and in the years to come.

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