Georgian Opposition Leader Zurabishvili 'I Would Call Saakashvili Insane'
The opposition in Georgia has been staging daily protests for over a month in an attempt to force President Mikhail Saakashvili to resign. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili about the state of democracy in Georgia and the country's path to the West.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Zurabishvili, on Monday you and three other opposition politicians were invited to speak with President Mikhail Saakashvili about the crisis in Georgia and ongoing anti-government protests. Were you able to find common ground?
Opposition flags were flying outside the Georgian parliament on Wednesday.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And which crisis are you referring to?
Zurabishvili: The political crisis in this country has been going on for about a year and a half. Since 2007, the people have been protesting against Saakashvili's increasingly authoritarian regime. There is no way of expressing this dissatisfaction democratically: elections were manipulated, parliament cannot be moved. Referenda or impeachment proceedings wouldn't stand a chance because in this country all power is concentrated in the hands of one man. And I would call him insane.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But during the war between Russia and Georgia in August of 2008 you united the entire opposition in support of Saakashvili. You even forbade any criticism of the president.
Zurabishvili: That was following the national tragedy! We stood united so that we could prevent Russia from using the situation to their advantage after the war.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why is the opposition so set on seeing Saakashvili as the bogeyman?
Zurabishvili: There is simply no one to turn to in other state institutions because none of them have any power anymore. That's the situation in which we find ourselves. The situation is serious and very dangerous. Because if, after these peaceful protests, we don't get any results -- not even a small concession -- then things could get out of control, as they did on May 6th.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That day an angry crowd tried to storm a police building in Tbilisi. The police reacted violently, dozens were injured.
Zurabishvili: That is exactly what we are trying to avoid. Saakashvili bears the ultimate responsibility for that -- because he refuses to listen to his own people. We, the opposition, have limited resources. We can only channel the dissatisfaction of the people to a certain degree.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Additionally there was news of a mutiny within the armed force. A tank unit was allegedly planning a coup against Saakashvili.
Zurabishvili: I am convinced that was a complete fake. That is also what a majority of the people believes. The aim was to intimidate the military. And it is continuing: every day there are more rumors of arrests of army personnel and of abuse.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the West, Saakashvili is known as an advocate for the inclusion of Georgia into NATO and the European Union. Would the end of the Saakashvili era also mean the end of Georgia's Western outlook?
Zurabishvili: I cannot speak for everyone but the overwhelming majority of the opposition is no less inclined toward the West than Saakashvili. But I fear that Saakashvili may actually have hindered Georgia's path to the West. After everything that has happened, I am worried that many Georgians may turn away from Western style democracy out of disappointment. For too long, the Americans have confused support for Georgia with aid for Saakashvili -- a situation that has frustrated many in Georgia. Now, all eyes rest on Europe.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are you hoping for?
Zurabishvili: Europe must make it clear to Saakashvili that his style of governance does not correspond with the values which Europe upholds. Europe must pressure him to hold new elections. That is the only way we can prevent violence.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's the next step for the opposition? The former presidential candidate, Levan Gachechiladze, recently said that the protests will only become more intense.
Zurabishvili: We will continue down the peaceful path we are now on. We don't have any other options. Our only resource is the people on the streets. Until now we have managed to keep the people organized and peaceful -- for more than 30 days. The people are not ready to go home.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Saakashvili is saying that there is Russian money and Russian secret service behind his opponents.
Zurabishvili: That is a transparent attempt to discredit us and make us look like Georgia's enemies. It's also an old Soviet tradition. At the talks on Monday he accused me of being an agent for the Russian military secret police, GRU. But he can hardly accuse the whole Georgian population of being Russian agents. This is not a conflict between the opposition and the president. It is a conflict between him and the people. Friends and colleagues called me yesterday before I went to the meeting to warn me not to drink anything there -- they were worried that I would be poisoned. That's how much trust the Georgians have in their president.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would you change Georgian policies toward Russia?
Zurabishvili: I would try to find a way to talk to the Russians. Georgia simply cannot afford a confrontation with her neighbor, Russia. We are too small a country. But the price for détente cannot under any circumstances be a weakening of our connections to the West. We should return to more sensible policies -- of the sort that we had when I was Saakashvili's foreign minister. At the moment there are two things on the agenda: integration into the West and the normalization of relations with Russia. There is no other option for Georgia.
Interview conducted by Benjamin Bidder