Monday, May 23, 2011

Arab Spring: Georgian Edition

We've already seen that the pro-democracy/pro-reform demonstrations called the “Arab Spring” are spreading far beyond the Arab world, to places including Uganda in sub-Saharan Africa and now, apparently to the southeast corner of Europe. On Saturday an estimated crowd of 6,000 turned out in Tbilisi, Georgia to protest against the rule of President Mikhail Saakashvili in what they hope will be a prelude to more massive demonstrations on May 25, the 20th anniversary of Georgia's independence from the Soviet Union.

The complains from the Georgian demonstrators have a familiar ring to them: They accuse Saakashvili of turning into an autocrat, rigging elections, trying to eliminate political opposition to his rule and muzzling the nation's press. They claim that Saakashvili's turn to autocracy has only grown worse since he led Georgia into a disastrousfive-day war with Russia over control of two break-away regions in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in 2008. The irony in their charges is that Saakashvili came to power himself in the wake of similar protests, the “Rose Revolution,” that pushed former President Eduard Shevardnadze from office.

The Western-educated Saakashvili has been viewed by governments in the United States and Europe as a valuable strategic ally and a way of blunting Russian influence in the borderlands of southeastern Europe and northeastern Asia, an image he has been happy to polish by actively promoting himself as a pro-market reformer while raising the threat of Georgia becoming a Russian satellite if he were to fall from power. Western governments have thus been willing to overlook charges raised by the Georgian opposition of oppression and substantial allegations that Saakashvili's government interfered in the January 2008 presidential elections – while at the same time condemning Russia over allegations of similar interference in their elections.

And that points out a bit of the hypocrisy that has surrounded Western (primarily the American government's) reaction to the Arab Spring protests – they have been fully behind the Libyan rebels attempts to oust Moammar Gadhafi from power, but practically silent on the oppression of protesters in Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and whose royal family is closely allied with Saudi Arabia's. Given that measure it's doubtful that Wednesday's demonstrations against Saakashvili will be met favorably by the West.
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