Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Only WikiLeaks can save us

On the evening of the Egyptian revolution I found myself in the capital of another far-flung and potentially unstable outpost of the Empire.

As dusk approached, I walked past the country's yellow-brick parliament building. It was flanked by two flags, one of which was the flag of the European Union. The other, that of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.

A large number of policemen were assembling at this Tbilisi street corner. Police already lined an adjacent street.

Meanwhile, in front of parliament, a line of ordinary men and women was forming. Facing the street, many members of this predominantly middle-aged group of demonstrators held signs. With ten minutes, about two dozen protesters would appear.

Walking down the line, I inquired of the protesters if any spoke English. None said they did. A television camera began filming them. I took a few pictures.

The signs were all in Georgian. What could this be about? I asked two young passers by -- they looked liked they might be students -- if they could help me understand what was going on.

"They are protesting President Mikheil Saakashvili. They blame him for losing South Ossetia. They say he started the war with Russia."

I asked the students, Sue, an English literature major, and Alice, a sociology major, what they thought of the protests.

Sue replied, "I am apolitical."

Only later would the meaning Sue's comment become clear. The students were by no means disinterested in politics. Sue would do most of the talking with Alice listening carefully to our exchange.

I asked if Georgia was a democracy.

"No!" said Sue. Alice shook her head.

"Would you call Saakashvili, your president, a dictator?"

"Personally, I wouldn't go so far as to call him that," said Sue. "But that sign over there describes him as a 'totalitarian.'" She mentioned that another protester's sign called Saakashvili "a killer."

"You chose a bad time to visit Georgia," said Alice.

I asked why.

"This sort of thing," said Sue, nodding in the direction of the protesters. Sue spoke of the economic situation: "Food is too expensive to buy. People don't earn high enough. Low salaries."

Alice blurted out, "Low salaries? Sue, tell him it's not that we don't earn adequate salaries, it's that people can't get jobs!"

Georgia's official rate of unemployment for 2009 was 16.4%.

The students suggested that Georgia's most pressing problem was that the 2008 confrontation with Russia had cost Georgia access to it's major trading partner. The border with Russia had remained closed. Armenia, another of Georgia's neighbors, was a client-state of Russia. Georgia's only friendly neighbors were Azerbaijan and Turkey, now its largest trading partner.

We talked about Georgia's relationship with America. Sue saw no evidence that Georgia's friendship with America had made life better for ordinary Georgians: "If the cost of being too close to America is alienating Russia, then it's not worth it for us. Georgia needs trade and good relations with Russia. We should not side with America or Russia, but stay in the middle."

I asked what they hoped might help save Georgia.

"Wikileaks!" said Sue. Alice agreed.

Their sense of conviction on this point startled me. "How can Wikileaks help Georgia?"

"The media is biased. We need Wikileaks to expose the corruption in government, what's really happening. The public needs the facts."

Sue said the opposition party in parliament was small and seemed to side with the government on many issues. The nation's main media sources, Sue added, were controlled either by the government or the opposition party.

"If you watch our television, you'll see there's seldom any bad news. Stories critical of the government simply don't get told."

I asked Sue and Alice if the protests in Egypt would inspire the Georgians.

"Nobody would support us if we protested" replied Sue.

"You're saying protests like those taking place in Egypt could not happen here in Georgia?"

"Well, the revolution in Egypt is failing" said Sue.

Today, in Egypt, the Army had just announced that it supported Egyptian president Mubarak. Sue's pessimism mirrored that of most observers at this hour. Although within the next three hours, Hosni Mubarak would step down, few dared conceive this was just about to happen. For anyone closely following the situation in Egypt, this was one of the darkest, least hopeful hours of the eighteen-day-long Egyptian struggle.

"People here are afraid to protest," Sue said. I asked why.

"They go to jail."

Sue explained that in 2010 some students had held a protest and they had yet to be released.

"Some Georgian protesters are still in jail?"


When I asked the two students if they would consider joining a protest, Sue said protesting would be pointless because "the opposition party is just as bad."

Night was falling, and the protesters were dispersing, but I had one more question: "What's with the European Union flag?"

They giggled.

"Yes, our government is strange!"
Note: The protest described here was not reported in any English language news source but for one Russian publication which provided background about the rally's organizers and motives. The protest coincided with an important speech to parliament by the Georgian president.

The names of the two students were changed to protect their identities.

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