BHHRG

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The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Mikheil Saakashvili: Power Grab
HITS: 2412 | 21-12-2005, 23:09 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 0)

 “We call Saakashvili Stalin …he is good, fair and that is why” (a citizen, Imedi TV, 19th February, 2005)

“We had the first televised revolution in history. We were live on CNN for four and a half hours without a commercial” (Saakashvili – Knight Ridder Newspapers, 9th March, 2005)

To describe the November 2003 events in Georgia as a ‘revolution’ indicates a failure to understand the trajectory taken by revolutions in the past. Yet, most Georgians, including those disenchanted by the Saakashvili regime, continue to repeat this oxymoron. As BHHRG pointed out in its report on the November 2003 election[1], the main beneficiaries were all former ministers and leading cadres in the ex-president’s political party. Historically, a revolution has signalled a break: neither Louis XV1’s ministers nor relatives of the Tsar took power after the respective revolutions in France and Russia. People’s failure to notice any improvement in their lives in Georgia since November 2003 may be because the same people are running the country as they did during the 1990s.

The main difference between the previous regime and the Saakashvili government is one of tone and degree. And, this change of tone is personified most acutely in the person of the new president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili was marked out for promotion at an early stage – he studied law at Columbia and George Washington Universities in the US before returning to Georgia with the appropriate Western credentials to become Justice Minister in 1999, and, later, Mayor of Tbilisi. Like his Western-educated, co-revolutionary, Viktor Yushchenko, he set himself up with a Western wife, Sandra Roelofs, a Dutch woman who had first visited Georgia in 1990.

Saakashvili took office on 25th January, 2004 in a solemn ceremony filmed by the world’s media. As he swaggered towards his formal inauguration outside parliament, people could have been forgiven for suspecting fascist leanings on the part of the new president. Such suspicions had been awoken already when, prior to his inauguration, Saakashvili decreed that the National Movement’s party banner would become the new flag of Georgia. Thus, the symbols of the state and the party became one, as was the case in Nazi Germany and the USSR. According to commentators “the changing of the flag on 14th January was so unexpected that debates in the media were possible only retrospectively”[2].

Constitutional amendments were rushed through parliament on 5th and 6th February, 2004 which increased the powers of the president. According to observers, these changes “were developed behind closed doors” by the triumvirate who manufactured the ‘Rose Revolution’ – Saakashvili, Burjanadze and Zhvania. “The content of the text was kept secret ..it has not even been published. The people did not even have the opportunity to discuss changes that confer unlimited powers on the president”. [3]

Among other things, the amendments gave the president the power to dissolve parliament and appoint the prime minister by decree if it refused to accept his nomination on three occasions. Similarly, if the budget is rejected three times by parliament, the president can pass it by decree. Provisions preventing the president from holding the post of party leader are abolished. The requirement for a 50% basic turnout in presidential elections goes. The president appoints the ministers of the interior, defence minister and state security without reference to parliament. A year later, the law was changed so that the president now recommends to parliament all candidates for membership of the Central Election Committee. The first chairman of the new CEC (appointed in June 2005) is Gia Kavtaradze, a former business partner of both the prime minister , Zurab Nogaideli and the Chairman of the Adjaran Autonomous Republic, Levan Varshalomidze.

Since then, Saakashvili has further burnished his fascist credentials. In June 2005, he was interviewed opening what was described as “[Georgia’s] first summer patriotic youth camp ..children raised the flag and sang the national anthem together with the president” .. “Saakashvili toured the camp in a special patriot’s uniform”[4] Imedi TV reported that another youth camp would open in August 2005 at Bakuriani in Western Georgia. This facility not only offered sea and sun, but “training with real guns” instructors were “teaching the children how to dismantle the weapons, maintain them, shoot, move and prepare an ambush”.[5]

The ‘White House’: Mikheil Saakashvili was hailed as a new breed of Georgian politician, someone with clean hands and a forthright manner. On taking office he pledged that “it was unacceptable for the Georgian president to have an inflated staff or a luxurious residence”[6] – he was referring to the former government residence in Krtsanisi on the outskirts of Tbilisi. This would be ‘sold’ and he and his wife would live in a small, two room flat in the headquarters of the Tbilisi traffic police, an old Tsarist building on the banks of the Kura river, which would be revamped for the purpose.

One year later, the commitment to sack cloth and ashes has turned to the proverbial dust. Residents of Tbilisi noted that a large structure, already dubbed the ‘White House’, was under construction. The police headquarters (which Saakashvili had claimed “something could be added to”) and a large swathe of domestic dwellings in the vicinity had been destroyed. On becoming president Saakashvili had said “I told them that I did not need more”. It is a two-storey building, it is enough. Not a single brick should be added to it and it should remain as it is now”.[7] A row broke when MP Valery Gelashvili claimed that his construction company, Evra, had the contract to refurbish the site. On 14th July, Gelashvili was attacked in the street by unknown assailants and badly beaten.[8]

On 27th July, 2005, BHHRG visited the site of the new palace. Only by examining the architect’s drawing and surveying the vast construction site is it possible to fully comprehend the scale of the enterprise. For one thing, when completed, this palace will be much larger than the White House. Its nearest competitor in the Caucasus is the new US embassy in Yerevan, in neighbouring Armenia. Such a massive structure seems unnecessary and inappropriate for the president of a small, impoverished country like Georgia. The question arises: will it only house Saakashvili and his entourage? Who has paid for it? In 2004 it was reported that “the reconstruction of the traffic police building will not be borne by the state budget”.

After a few minutes photographing the building site (there were no signs to prohibit such activity) BHHRG’s representatives were detained by the police until a senior officer arrived. After a wait of nearly an hour they were allowed to go, but only after being photographed by a silent figure in the back of the police car.

George Bush’s comes to town: However, there were no misgivings on the part of President Bush who visited Georgia for a few hours on 9th and 10th May 2005. Addressing thousands of people in Tbilisi’s Liberty Square, Bush declared that: “Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world.”[9] In April 2005, BHHRG observed the lavish - if superficial - beautification process that was underway in preparation for the visit. Paint (which locals claimed was cheap and inappropriate for the purpose) was applied to any structure the president might pass, roads were re-laid and garbage was swept into the river to make its ecological journey down stream! BHHRG noted that highway improvements stopped abruptly when the road swept past the airport. According to one worker, “George Bush is unlikely to travel down this road, so it will not be repaved”.[10] An office was specially designated to handle the one-day visit as well as a designated web site.[11]

The Saakashvili regime even managed to produce its own terrorist outrage. On 11th May, the police revealed that a grenade had been thrown at Bush while he addressed the crowds, landing near the two presidents as they stood on the podium in Liberty Square. No one noticed it at the time, it failed to go off and no one was harmed. However, there was the inevitable accusations that Russia was behind the incident - if it happened at all. On 20th July, 26-year-old Vladimir Arutunian was arrested in what appeared to be a clumsy police operation, captured - as usual - live on television as was the suspect’s ‘confession’. BHHRG was told that Arutunian, a Georgian of Armenian descent, appeared to be somewhat simple if not mentally unstable. He seemed to be an unlikely candidate to implement a complex, Kremlin-inspired assassination attempt. Many Georgians failed to understand why this incident had received such wide publicity - no one had been hurt. Some concluded that a grenade had never been thrown but the alleged incident served Saakashvili’s purpose in keeping the voltage high and the public uneasy. The arrival of George Bush was President Saakashvili’s proudest moment – in July, giant photographs of the two presidents were still prominently displayed in Tbilisi’s city centre. BHHRG recalled the president’s previous visits to Germany, Holland and England where he was less enthusiastically received. In Mannheim, members of the public were not allowed within a ten kilometre radius of Bush’s entourage; in London, in 2003, thousands of demonstrators took to streets to protest against the Iraq war.

But, Georgia was different. People told BHHRG that they were “honoured” by Bush’s visit to such a “small country”. Many held out the hope that it would herald the arrival of much-needed economic aid. One observer said some just hoped he would “feed them”. None of these things have come true. However, they do indicate that Georgia’s much-touted “national pride” and “fierce independence” are hollow and that many of its people have swapped one imperial master for another – willingly, as their desperate plight worsens.


[1] BHHRG, “Revolution of Guns not Roses” www.oscewatch.org,

[2] See, Marina Muskhelishvili, “Constitutional Changes in Georgia”, Center for Social Studies, http://www.idea.int/europe_cis/upload/Constitutional%20Changes%20in%20Georgia%20-%20eng%20changed-2.pdf,

[3] ibid.,

[4] Imedi TV, 1st June, 2005, www.bbcmonitoringonline.com,

[5] “Children at Georgian "patriotic" youth camp given weapons training”, Rustavi 2, 6th August, 2005, www.bbcmonitoringonline.com,

[6] “Georgian president-elect pledges to cut administrative costs” Rustavi 2, 8th January, 2004,

[7] ibid.,

[8] “MP Links Attack on him to Presidential Residence Row”, Civil Georgia, 14th July, 2005 http://www.civil.ge/eng/,

[9] http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/2125/,

[10] “Georgian capital being spruced up ahead of US president’s visit” Imedi, 6th April 2005,

[11] See, http://www.georgiawelcomesusa.com/news_english.htm.

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