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Analysis & Opinion
26.05.11 Taking The Bait
By Andrew Roth

Violent clashes broke out in Tbilisi last night when Georgian riot police ran off protestors calling for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s resignation with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Nino Burjanadze, who led several thousand protestors on the Tbilisi streets last evening, has marginal popularity in the country, but managed to publicly embarrass Saakashvili by provoking him into a violent crackdown. In the international arena, the overreaction to the protests will embarrass Saakashvili’s Western partners and play into Russia’s running dialogue on his aggressive domestic politics.

The streets of Tbilisi are reportedly quiet today, on Georgia’s 20th anniversary of independence, but a stream of pictures and video of violence in the center of the city last evening have stoked talk of police crackdowns and authoritarianism. Protests, launched under oppositionist Nino Burjanadze last evening, had been ongoing for several days. The protestors closed off streets in front of the Parliament last evening, claiming that they would not let the Independence Day parade go through. Thousands of Georgian riot police cracked down heavily late in the evening, resulting in 37 wounded and two killed according to official reports. Burjanadze called the violent crackdown “a crime against humanity,” reported Reuters.

This is not the first time that protests have devolved into bloodshed on Tbilisi’s streets. In 2007 in far larger protests on Rustaveli Avenue, where last nights protests also turned violent, riot police turned water cannons and tear gas on tens of thousands of protestors, resulting in hundreds of injured. Repeated crackdowns on protests over Saakashvili’s reign have aided Russia in portraying the Georgian leader as rash and prone to violence.

Russia’s official statements today called the crackdowns “a human rights violation” and put the onus on Western leaders to answer for their support of Saakashvili. “We believe that the latest events in Georgia will receive an objective evaluation not only from international human rights organizations, but also from those governments that support Saakashvili’s regime,” said Alexander Lukashevich, the official spokesman for the Russian Ministry of International Affairs, at a briefing in Moscow. Russian media has also widely played photos and videos claiming a massive government crackdown in Tbilisi. A journalist from RT, a leading Kremlin television channel, was beaten and hit by rubber bullets during the fray, RIA Novosti reported.

Burjanadze has openly expressed interest in overthrowing the government in the past, and it seems that her plan was to provoke riot police into confrontation in the first place. The government overreacted, said Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus Project director for the International Crisis Group in Tbilisi, especially considering Burjanadze’s marginal popularity in the country and even among oppositionists. “She’s one of the least popular opposition politicians in Georgia, the last polls that I’ve seen were close to two percent, within the margin of error. There are opposition leaders that are far more popular,” he said. “She was definitely bent on creating some sort of decisive confrontation with the authorities and the authorities are known to overreact here, they’ve done that before.”

US officials appeared cautiously supportive of the Georgian authorities today, backing up reports that the protestors were more interested in battling with police than in protesting in public statements. "I'm concerned by indications that there are elements within those groups protesting who appear to be more interested in trying to force a violent confrontation than in peacefully protesting," US ambassador John Bass told AFP on Wednesday.

For the government, any gains from the crackdown are limited in scope. Sheets noted that the protests did not pose an extreme threat because of Burjanadze’s low popularity, and it does not seem that protestors are planning to regroup. Burjanadze, meanwhile, could be facing serious legal trouble, as members of her motorcade last evening are being accused of running over and killing a police officer and one other person as they fled the violence. Georgian officials today also released a video recording of Burjanadze apparently discussing an overthrow of the government.

Yet for Georgia, a country which has relied heavily on positive media attention in the past, as during the war with Russia, getting rid of Burjanadze may not be worth the trouble. “Whenever you have pictures on TV of water cannons and tear gas, it looks bad,” said Sheets.
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