Tbilisi Protesters Could Be Doing Russia's Work

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November 7, 2007, was a day that Georgian leaders would rather forget, but the opposition is determined to remember. One year ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili sent in riot police to crush demonstrations outside the parliament on the pretext of averting a coup. Hundreds were injured as pitched battles raged along the main boulevard of Tbilisi and through the back streets as darkness fell.

On Friday, the country's radical opposition parties returned to the streets for the first time since the war with Russia in August to commemorate the anniversary of a day that seriously damaged Saakashvili's global image as a democratic reformer. The opposition was also seeking to capitalize on simmering discontent about the war, which drove tens of thousands of Georgians from their homes and shattered dreams of winning back the lost territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"Was this war necessary? Was it necessary for so many Georgians to die?" demanded Dali, a refugee from Abkhazia who was carrying a red rose with a black ribbon tied to it, which she said symbolized the "funeral" of the Saakashvili government. Others came to protest about civil liberties and alleged government control of the media. "There is no truth on television, no independent judiciary," claimed Natia, a student.

Opposition leaders announced that the rally marked the beginning of a "new wave of civil resistance." But their protest was much smaller than they had hoped -- partly because the opposition itself is deeply divided and compromised by past failures and lacks charismatic leadership. Some Georgians also believe that political instability could further weaken the country while it's struggling to recover from the war.

Fears have also been expressed that civil unrest in Tbilisi is exactly what Georgia's foes in the Kremlin want to see, although the opposition strongly rejects allegations that it is doing Moscow's work. "Stop Russia, Stop Misha," one of its banners declared. "It doesn't matter what Russia wants -- we want democracy," insisted former presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze when I suggested that attempts to oust "Misha," as Saakashvili is known, would be welcomed by the Kremlin.

While the protesters were marching on the presidential palace, Saakashvili made a public show of contrition by visiting a man who was injured during last year's crackdown. He said November 7 had been a "big lesson" for him -- a lesson he insists he has now learned. He said it showed that Georgia's problems "should not be resolved in the streets." But that, it seems, is exactly what his hard-line opponents will attempt to do in the months to come.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.