As I listen to the nauseating campaign ads for the 2012 US presidential election, it makes me think back to previous years when my preferred candidate did or didn’t win. In cases where my guy lost, I assumed it was because more voters supported or turned out for the other candidate. I didn’t worry that the winner had cheated (too much). I also thought to myself that it was for eight years at most. More likely four, if he turned out to be as bad as I feared. Whatever the case, I’ve never worried that any president would change the constitution and make himself “leader for life.” Call me naïve, but I just don’t think any politician could get away with that here. It would go so strongly against American political beliefs and democratic values, against what is accepted.
I’ve thought about this because I’ve studied other countries, like the Republic of Georgia, where leaders stay in power long after a large part of society wants them out. There, people told me President Eduard Shevardnadze seemed “eternal” because he had ruled Georgia in one capacity or another for decades. Shevardnadze and the members of his ruling party wanted to stay in power, so they doctored the election results as necessary. Over the years, Georgians came to understand that they couldn’t prevent this, no matter how much they hated it. The regular people had no voice and no power. Part of that reality and mentality came from having lived under Soviet rule for 70 years (as if that could have produced a thriving, democratic political culture). There wasn’t a better alternative to Shevardnadze anyway, and people didn’t want him overthrown in a coup or revolution, because they had already lived through several years of war in the early 1990s.
If the leadership had been doing a better job, then more people might have been willing to put up with the fraud and corruption a little longer. But the country was falling apart. As an American living there at the time, I really didn’t experience what the Georgians did, but I got some shocking glimpses. One evening, some friends and I visited someone in an unfamiliar part of the capital, Tbilisi. As we got ready to leave, our host insisted on walking us to the bus stop. (I should mention that he had lost a leg during the civil war when a sniper shot him.) Outside, the streetlights were dark because there was never enough electricity, so we got out our flashlights to look for the potholes that were everywhere. We were terrified our host would break his ankle, but he managed even with his prosthetic leg. Because he lived there, he had to.
In the November 2003 parliamentary elections there was fraud as usual, and as expected, but this time turned out to be different. Some opposition politicians and activists had been preparing for a couple of years to make this time the last straw, so they were able to mobilize relatively large crowds against Shevardnadze and the fraud. Many demonstrations happened in front of Parliament, on Rustaveli Avenue, because this area is a powerful symbol of Georgia’s struggle for freedom: On April 9, 1989, pro-independence demonstrators were massacred there by Soviet troops.
Considering how apathetic or cynical many Georgians were toward politics, and how powerless many felt (thanks in part to lessons learned under the Soviet system), it was remarkable that so many came. If you’re curious about how the protest movement managed to change people’s attitudes, you can read my book on that particular subject. In the end, President Shevardnadze stepped down after three weeks and said “ok, I’m going home. I’ve got memoirs to write.” Or something to that effect.
The people got Rose Revolution figurehead Mikheil Saakashvili as their new president. Even some people who didn’t like him at all told me he was an amazing and inspiring protest leader. He had the gift of knowing what to say to people, and how to say it. He was able to give people energy and hope. Saakashvili has been less spectacular as president, unfortunately. At least a lot of Georgians think so, which is why there have been major protests against him in the last several years.
On October 1st Georgians will have more parliamentary elections, and the Big Question is how much fraud there will be. Will the losing side trust and accept the results, or will it dispute them? If it rejects the results, this could mean more people in the streets.
Georgians have mixed feelings about protest. People remember how protests in the early years of independence from the USSR led to civil war, and they’ve had enough conflict. They are growing tired of protests because they are noisy and disruptive, block the streets, etc. Another thing is that people would really like to have a more democratic system, where they could count on elections to replace leaders who don’t speak for them or do things to improve their lives. Within the opposition, some radicals still advocate street protest, while others see it as a necessary evil: So far their country hasn’t been able to make certain changes democratically because those in power haven’t wanted things to change.
Saakashvili has been promising in his grandiose style that these elections will be “the free-est and most transparent in Georgian history.” Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, has vowed not to push for confrontation in the event of a dispute, but he has warned that the people will protest against fraud. Even if there is peaceful protest, the Saakashvili administration could resort to violent suppression as it did in November 2007. Soon we will see which side, if either, keeps its promises this October.