Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is expected to win the snap elections he has called for Jan. 5 to defuse an escalating crisis after he cracked down on opposition protests. But his troubles are unlikely to end there.
The problems that eroded Mr. Saakashvili’s once universal popularity — high-handed rule through a narrow team of advisers, a failure to make the judiciary independent or to battle widespread joblessness — will remain, according to diplomats and opposition politicians.
Doubts also continued Friday as to whether the rapid presidential vote will be fair enough to help repair Mr. Saakashvili’s damaged democratic credentials. Georgia’s Parliament Friday endorsed a two-week state of emergency, while uncertainty remained over how quickly opposition TV stations will be able to return on air.
Ending the state of emergency and restoring the closed TV channels are essential to ensure the elections “will be free and fair, and governed by free speech, rather than fear,” said Matthew J. Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state, as he left Washington for Georgia to express U.S. concern.
Mr. Saakashvili, a 39-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer, won plaudits abroad for dragging Georgia from the near-failed state he inherited in 2004, to a working economy with an effective police force and army. At the start of his rule, he gained support from most Georgians and Western governments for radical executive measures, which included forcing businessmen to pay back taxes or go to jail and firing thousands of traffic police officers to clean up corruption.
Georgia’s economy is expected to grow 11% this year and has begun to attract foreign investment, long absent because of years of civil war, intermittent power supplies and lack of rule of law. But Mr. Saakashvili’s intolerance of critics and those who feel left behind by his promarket therapy have created resentment at home. Opponents accuse him of “neo-Bolshevism.”
Mr. Saakashvili couldn’t be reached to comment. “We have not done a good job laying out our actions to our allies,” said Giga Bokeria, chairman of the Georgian Parliament’s legal affairs committee and a close ally of the president. Mr. Bokeria repeated allegations the opposition protests had been organized by Russian security services in an attempt to topple the government.
The use of tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to break up protests Wednesday appear to have been a breaking point for Mr. Saakashvili, a blow to his efforts to integrate Georgia with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, and to U.S. policy. The U.S. has strongly supported Mr. Saakashvili’s government as an energy transit route and model for democracy in the former Soviet Union.
Mr. Saakashvili bowed to Western pressure Thursday by calling early elections that will test his mandate. But his government signaled Friday it will keep up pressure on his opponents, who will already have little time to unite behind another candidate.
Georgia’s prosecutor said in a statement that Badri Patarkatsishvili, co-owner of the country’s main independent television station, is suspected of plotting a coup. He recently transferred his shares in the station, Imedi TV, to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
The investigation of Mr. Patarkatsishvili could muddle the reopening of Imedi, which was ransacked by police Wednesday night.
The station’s director, F. Lewis Robertson, said police confiscated the mobile telephones of everyone at the station when they stormed it, so it is difficult to call his staff back together. “It’s hard to say whether we can be up and running” before the elections, he said.
Discontent has been brewing in Georgia for some time, driven by a series of high-profile cases in which the executive appeared to manipulate courts, abuse police powers and ignore the economic plight of those hit by the government’s rapid market overhauls. Georgia remains one of the poorest countries in the region, with gross domestic product per capita of just $4,200 — roughly half that in Ukraine, Iran and neighboring Azerbaijan.
Last year, top officials in Mr. Saakashvili’s security service were enmeshed in a brutal murder case that helped undermine his popularity. Though some lower-level officers were sent to prison for the killing, and a top official resigned, many Georgians felt high officials should have been jailed, too.
“Nothing has changed in the government’s attitude towards democracy and human rights,” said David Usupashvili, leader of the opposition Republican Party. “What has happened is that … the problems we have seen for years became visible to those who couldn’t see them.”
While the government has talked up the need for an independent judiciary, a recent study by the nonprofit Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association shows how the government fought a rearguard action to prevent a constitutional change from stripping the president of the right to hire and fire judges.
In his effort to crack down on widespread crime, Mr. Saakashvili has roughly doubled Georgia’s prison population, leading to several riots and tough criticism of overcrowding by groups such as Human Rights Watch.
Still, diplomats and analysts say they believe Mr. Saakashvili is likely to win the January poll. That’s partly because he retains some support, while the opposition has yet to unite around any viable candidate. It’s also because the short time frame for the vote and the ruling parliamentary party’s dominance in forming the election commission stacks the deck in his favor, according to Anna Dolidze, a Georgian civil-liberties activist.