An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people thronged to the streets of Tbilisi on Friday to protest the government of Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Most news accounts are treating this as an indictment of Saakashvili, a Columbia-trained lawyer who took power four years ago in the Rose Revolution, and who is a close ally of the United States. That may well be right (although the protesters are not seeking to overthrow him; they merely want elections moved up).
Undoubtedly, like any other leader of an emerging democracy, he has made some mistakes and alienated some people. But what struck me as notable, and what hasn’t been mentioned in most press reports (see here and here), was the restrained reaction of the authorities.
Saakashvili didn’t call out an army of riot police to bust up the protests. The police presence was limited to a few lightly armed officers who, for the most part, got along well with the crowds. Contrast that with Russia, where far smaller anti-government rallies have been broken up by club-wielding riot police who have assaulted some protesters and arrested others, including the former chess champ Garry Kasparov.
This is clearly a tale of two former Soviet republics going in different directions: Georgia toward liberal democracy, Russia toward autocracy. Whatever his mistakes, Saakashvili deserves credit for his efforts to create greater freedom, including the freedom to protest against the government.