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Friday, November 09, 2007

Brokenhearted over Georgia

In former-Soviet Georgia, where I once worked for current president Mikheil Saakashvili, emergency rule has been declared following violent clashes between Police and protesters on Wednesday. (See NY Times coverage by the excellent C. J. Chivers here and here.)

First of all, watch this clip on YouTube of the opposition TV station "Imedi" being shut down. It's harrowing.

I've been struggling to sort out what I feel about these events. If I feel disappointed with the Georgian government, and I write about that here, do I damage my professional relationships? If I do not write about this now, then what, when?

First, let me do my best to see things from the government's point of view. What happened in Georgia isn't very different from what's happened in the United States and Europe plenty of times in the last ten years. I've had friends hit by police randomly, deliberately struck by police horses, tackled and handcuffed at no provocation, tear-gassed and arrested arbitrarily, all in the US (mostly in New York); excessive force by the police is not the sole province of anyone, unfortunately, and if authorities here can't--or won't--keep police crowd control methods civil, it's unfair to expect authorities in Georgia to do so.

Protests in the US, moreover, haven't been a serious threat to this country's stability for decades (since either the 1960s, the 1910s, or the 1860s, depending on your politics). But Georgia faces a serious external threat in a constant state of low-intensity war: Russia has thousands of soldiers, either officially or by proxy, occupying what the United Nations recognizes as Georgian territory. The Georgian government claims that the recent protests were a Russian-organized provocation, and there's some truth to that; at least one opposition party is blatantly funded and controlled by Moscow, and you're kidding yourself if you think the NKVD (successor to the KGB) didn't have paid provacateurs in the crowd on Wednesday. Demonstrators calling for the overthrow of the government were blocking the capital's main street and beginning to set up a "tent city" as a semi-permanent protest outside of the Parliament building; some of them were working for an essentially hostile foreign power. You don't need to be a law-and-order conservative to agree that the state has a legitimate responsibility to stop that from happening.

Of course, the Saakashvili government came to power through just that sort of persistent, unrelenting protest. But there's a difference. This government has made unfair and arbitrary decisions several times regarding parliamentary elections, but the bottom line is that the last elections were universally hailed as free and fair, and the next ones were coming up soon. The opposition is desperate not so much because it's being shut out of the process, as that it has repeatedly failed to win over voters and is at wit's end to gain some power and oversight.

All of that does, I know, have the ring of apparatchik-speak. At the same time, the simplest explanation is usually the true one, and the truth is that police abuse, like military abuse (Abu Ghraib etc.) is the result of the cascading of many people's minor heartlessness, not the calculated cravenness of those at the top. A strong organizational culture of professionalism, restraint, responsibility and decency can so much to prevent these abuses, but in the civilization we humans have built, such a culture is missing in most governments, in most militaries, in most businesses, in most families. When you send in the police to break up a protest, people get frightened and hurt. Much of the time, making a protest end peacefully isn't a option.

And finally, if abuses do happen, you should apologize; Saakashvili has called for snap elections, basically a referendum on his mandate. There is humility in that move, which would be an appropriate response from someone who feels they made a mistake on Wednesday.

Whew. [Exhale.] That's the best I can do at making a horrible thing understandable, but it doesn't quite work. There really is a difference between rounding up a couple rock-throwers and chasing and beating people of all ages so that they fear for their lives. Police who have been given reasonable orders do not chase fleeing protesters to distant areas and beat them en masse. It only takes a small sense of but-for-the-grace-of-God-there-go-I from leaders. New York's mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg largely fail us this way; they have simply never imagined themselves on the little guy's side of a truncheon, cell bars, or a ticket for sitting on their own stoop.

There is also a difference between imposing a curfew and imposing a news blackout, and a further difference from forcibly shutting down an opposition TV station, harassing the staff and destroying its equipment. Those are just the sorts of things Saakashvili decried when he was in the opposition. A much more mild raid in 2001 on another (then-opposition) TV station, Rustavi-2, led Eduard Shevardnadze to sack his entire cabinet, and vow publicly that "There is no threat to freedom of speech in Georgia." Saakashvili and other opposition figures then mocked this statement and called the sacking not enough. What now?

When I was consulting with the Saakashvili administration, I made a point to approach protesters and hear what they had to say (a gesture entirely salutary rather than helpful, given my poor Georgian and their usually poor English). From everything that I read and hear, I can only imagine that if I had still been working that job, I too would likely have been chased, shot with rubber bullets and beaten; Georgian government officials (including the Ombudsman) were not immune, and neither were foreigners. I have taken many pictures at protests, including some at protests in Georgia in 2001; would I have had police snatch my camera, smash it and smack me, as happened to a good friend of mine, one of the sweetest souls I've ever known?

Last, I have heard President Saakashvili speak passionately about the social bonds that helped the Rose Revolution succeed. When protesters including Saakashvili stormed Parliament in November 2004, guards, miraculously, decided not to open fire; some have ascribed this to the fact that Tbilisi is a small city in a small country: everyone knows everyone, or is a distant cousin, and you don't fire on a crowd if your friends and family are among them. That explanation has always struck me as fitting Georgia, a culture where enemies are always a toast away from becoming friends, and new acquaintances are only minutes away from being brothers and sisters.

What has happened to that social cohesion?

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Below are a few excerpts of first-hand accounts of Wednesday's clashes. One is from a friend. These were not intended for publication, so I'm trying to keep them short and leave out identifying details.

...when i arrived police were standing behind metal barricades keeping the road open, there was no violence and the protestors more or less filled the pavement... at about 1 the number of protestors had grown large enough to make any attempt at keeping open the road futile, and the police marched off... i though at that point that everything would be fine, just more of the same we had seen since friday. the crowd were still peaceful i must stress.

a few minutes later, we heard a stomping sound and turned to see an approaching phalanx of riot police marching in step and beating their shields. the protestors rushed to push the metal barricades in front. the riot police, water cannon and noise weapons (i don't what else to call them, but they are horrible). without saying anything like 'disperse or we move in', they begn firing volley after volley of tear gas into the crowd, turned on the water cannons and the noise and started beating people. the protesters were scattered fairly soon, but moved round to the opera, where the riot police used exactly the same tactics, this time using so much tear gas that it totally filled the street--no wonder over 500 people are in the hospital.

as for what happened on the riqe [plaza on the other side of the river where protesters regrouped in the late afternoon], the crowd was totally peaceful and the road was open!! there was no talk of returning to parliament... the only thing [opposition leaders] said was 'civil disobedience', 'we are the georgian ghandis'. the riot police then gathered on baratashvili bridge... as the water cannon, rubber bullets and gas began at baratashvili (again without the slightest provocation), the crowd surged to metekhi only to find that cut off by riot police too, so they were effectively trapped. [my friend] was shot in the head with a rubber bullet and my colleague in the leg, they hid in a cellar. [we] were inches from getting beaten, they were chasing us... we fled through the tunnel after a really generous soul piled us into his car...

also, many of the people on the riqe were ordinary tbilisi citizens who had no part in the protests, they were there because they were rightly outraged by what happened.
Another account:

I was personally shot with rubber bullets in the face... Soon the side street battles began away from the media. At one point a lost wave of soldiers was chasing people down a hill on one of the side streets. However, the crowd stopped and decided to hold its ground. Large numbers of reinforcements from Rustavili Avenue came in to back them up. I found myself in a separate crowd of protesters behind the initial wave, only to be surrounded by the incoming units. Spetnetz and irregulars, who were carrying sticks and other construction materials from the unfinished beautification projects, started beating people who were trapped in the middle. I directed people through a small alley towards that back of a theater after seeing a young woman get shot in the face at point blank, for trying to hide from the onslaught. Also trying to escape from the madness, I ended up with a group of people hiding in the basement of this theater, who were all scared out of their minds. Now I have this image in my head of this little girl who's face was just blank with fear, and it just won't go away.

Later in the evening I found an old man who's head was streaming with blood... This was when the protesters began running at the police in their reaction to their use of force. They were later chased up a hill to a church, which was 'watered cannoned', and others were chased further up to Avlabari metro area. However, there was a delay the pursuit as police and other units regrouped. Bottled water was distributed from the back of a truck and a fire engine was filling up the water cannon. The police in marched up the hill from two sides and continued in hot pursuit of the protesters as they fled behind the metro station.

The police were dragging people out of shops, who appeared to not be involved at all. One man was dragged out from a pharmacy and was beaten by four policemen, and they only stopped when a foreign journalist started shouting in English and pulled out his identification, and even he was threatened to be beaten.

While running across the street to where I say more of the same- others chased down and mercilessly attacked I was grabbed and after trying to pull away, I was quickly taken down - I was surrounded and clubbed and kicked repeatedly in the head, back, and neck, which now is unbelievably stiff. I felt the zip-tie around my wrist but, thank god, medical crew suddenly pulled me away from the crowd of hooded of police and threw me into a wagon.

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