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April 16, 2009
“Cabbage protests” wilt for Georgia’s opposition

Demonstrators in front of the parliament building during a protest rally in Tbilisi.

Mass protests against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili have failed to gain traction, unlike the “Rose Revolution” of 2003 that put Saakashvili in power. Back then, Saakashvili’s supporters carried flowers — today, his opponents throw cabbages and carrots.

Matthew Collin reports for Al Jazeera from Georgia, and writes in the “Frontline Club” blog to explore why the protesters’ message is not resonating this time.

‘Cabbage Revolution’ Wilts

Under stony skies, a dirge-like ballad droned from the speakers outside the Georgian parliament: an appropriate soundtrack for the seventh day of opposition protests in Tbilisi. A series of opposition leaders was greeted by polite applause as they raged against Mikheil Saakashvili, the president who has refused to offer them his head on a pike. It started to drizzle; those who had umbrellas raised them. “All Georgia is here!” declared one optimist from the stage. It was not. These few thousand, or a good proportion of them, were the opposition’s hardcore perennials; the people we’ve become accustomed to seeing time and again at protests here down the years – the unemployed, the pensioners, the dispossessed and the desperate, chewing on sunflower seeds, spitting the husks, and smoking.

Despite what the Moscow propaganda channel Russia Today is saying today (“Sleepless nights for Mikheil Saakashvili”), the president has weathered the initial threat of political destabilisation, although – this being Georgia, where politics is often like theatre, played out on the street – there will undoubtedly be more to come in the future. In a small country with big problems, the next crisis is always around the corner…

Why has the opposition so far failed to rock the Saakashvili regime to its foundations, to send him running like the ‘scared rabbit’ they accused him of being as they lobbed carrots and cabbages over the gates of his presidential palace? Many analysts are marking this failure down to superior state strategy and cunning – the decision to let the demonstrators rally wherever they wanted, and not send in the riot police to crack heads, as Saakashvili did in November 2007, shattering his Western media image as democracy’s US-educated honour student.

The low-key policing massively reduced the chance of violent confrontation; a brief late-night altercation at the weekend showed how quickly tempers could flare. The president and his advisers seemed to be hoping that people would simply get bored and go home if there were no ‘provocations’ to stoke their ire and passion, and so far, that is exactly what seems to have happened.

Some correspondents have also suggested that a significant number of Georgians simply don’t trust the opposition – a fragile and sometimes fractious alliance of liberal democrats, belligerent nationalists, conservatives and street-corner populists – to do any better at running Georgia than Saakashvili. Some of the current opposition alliance are former regime insiders who’ve defected and now despise their former boss and all his works (which of course they once praised); others are the kind of veteran authority-baiters who would probably demonstrate against themselves if they ever came to power.

But that’s not the whole story; there is significant level of discontent here, as a Gallup opinion poll today suggests, but there’s also a sense of fatigue; weariness with the constant political turmoil of the past couple of years – street rallies, then elections; street rallies, then more elections; more street rallies, then the war with Russia, and now street rallies again… For some people, even if they have grievances with this regime, there has simply been too much politics recently.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user gipajournos under a Creative Commons license.

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