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A Rose by Any Other Name

The wheels come off in Georgia.

11:00 PM, Nov 20, 2007 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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"It is unpleasant when the state resorts to a force against one part of its population. It was the most difficult decision. Each baton hit on our citizens was also hit on me But chaos and civil confrontation would have been an alternative to this. Georgia has already experienced that and my goal is not to let the country to go back to those years Does not matter who is a president, the state should act this way."

NOT EVEN PERVEZ Musharraf has the gall to invoke one of the most hackneyed excuses of the megalomaniacal tyrant who pounds his people into submission: "This hurts me just as much as it hurts you." Yet when Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili's announced a state of emergency last Wednesday, after tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets in defiance of his rule and were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets for their troubles, it was as if history itself were inviting comparison between the Caucasus and the subcontinent.

The situation in Georgia is symbolically worse than the one in Pakistan, however, because Saakashvili used to be known as exactly the kind of fresh new democrat the Bush Doctrine hoped to promote in the developing world. A New York-educated lawyer with strong pro-American leanings, he was elected in 2003 in the aftermath of Georgia's Rose Revolution, which unhorsed the ossified ex-Soviet satrap Eduard Shevardnadze. In his brief tenure as president, Saakashvili has overseen an impressive decrease in state and industrial corruption--so much so that in 2006 the World Bank rated Georgia the top economic reformer in the world and 18th in terms of "ease of doing business."

For centuries Georgia has been a rough-and-tumble Black Sea cosmopolis that boasts as many tribes as it does wine varietals. Its ancient place name was Colchis, site of Prometheus' eternal punishment, home to Medea and the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts and the termination point, according to Hebrew legend, of Noah's Ark. Not an easy territory to unify and govern. (It was in his native Georgia, after all, that Joseph Stalin learned the first rule of irredentism, namely that ethnicity is not only anathema to socialist internationalism but to bourgeois nationalism.) So it was a rare feat when Saakashvili managed a peaceful solution to the Ajarian separatist movement, which threatened at one point to balkanize the post-Soviet republic, although his handling of similar ethnic breakaway initiatives led by South Ossetia and Abkhazia has been dramatically less successful.

Though Georgia's human rights record has improved since Saakashvili's election, according to the U.S. State Department, "[l]aw enforcement officers reportedly tortured or abused detainees in their homes or in cars while taking them to a place of detention. There were also allegations that plainclothes security service agents attacked several people on the street or abused them in unpopulated places, such as cemeteries or forests." Last year a prison riot resulted in the deaths of seven inmates and injuries to 17 more, and Saakashvili's ruling center-left United National Movement party silenced loud parliamentary calls for an independent investigation into what transpired. But the biggest scandal yet to engulf the Saakashvili regime was the highly publicized 2006 murder of Sandro Girgvliani, the former head of United Georgian Bank's Foreign Department.

The details of the case are too murky and complicated to go into here, but suffice it to say, last July, four low-ranking members of Georgia's Interior Ministry were convicted of abducting and beating Girgvliani to death, and many more officials have resigned or been fired in the seemingly endless aftermath. For many Saakashvili opponents on both the right and the left, this has been the sharpest thorn of the Rose Revolution, and they've been immensely aided in their efforts to dislodge the reigning hierarchs by the existence of a free press (there are 200 independent newspapers in Georgia and internet access is totally unencumbered) and the often provocative broadcasts of the Imedi television station. Imedi TV is owned by the Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili and--believe it or not--Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. And here's where things get really interesting.