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RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies: IN FOCUS: Georgia's Student Protest Movement
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Unlike the West, large-scale youth movements have been less prevalent in Eurasia for a variety of reasons. Governments appear to have more capacity to herd young people into officially sanctioned youth or student organizations and give them significant privileges there to dissuade them from dissent. They also wield considerably more powerful tools of repression in depriving students of access to state-funded universities, stipends, and housing if they step out of line. Because the adults' opposition political parties are usually themselves under pressure and fractured over the very issue of how much to cooperate with the existing regime, they have trouble creating solid youth movements. Some still-existing features of traditional families also tend to mitigate against youth protest, but if a critical mass of discontented adults is reached, the parents will stand by their protesting children, and the society at large will see their own aspirations reflected in the next generation.
While the magic number of "100,000 in the central square" has not yet been reached -- the figure said by most analysts to be required for social change to galvanize -- there is indication that the youth protest movement known as "Kmara" (Enough) is growing in Georgia. Some 5,000 opposition activists, many students, demonstrated on 3 June in the main square in Tbilisi demanding the replacement of the Central Election Commission and a new election law before the 2 November parliamentary elections (see "Georgia: Opposition Challenges Shevardnadze Ahead of Autumn Elections," rferl.org, 4 June 2003).
The students called for the resignation of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and complained about the unfairness of the 19-member Central Election Commission, currently dominated by pro-government forces, representing only those parties that overcame the 7 percent threshold in the 1999 parliamentary elections, or which garnered more than 4 percent in last year's local elections. The students have made some common cause with older political opposition leaders. Among the demonstration leaders was Zurab Zhvania, a former Shevardnadze ally and speaker of parliament who now chairs the United Democrats opposition party, and Mikhail Saakashvili, former justice minister and now leader of the New National Movement
Not originally related to existing political movements, Georgia's Kmara took off on 14 April when youth marched from Tbilisi State University to the State Chancellery, chanting their slogan "Enough" and carrying the flags of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic with the faces of the current government leaders on them, according to the Human Rights Documentation and Information Center -- evidently to dramatize their connection with the Soviet past. Although originally the students were motivated to protest against corruption within the university, their demands grew broader to address the whole political system. About 300 students took part in the demonstration, saying they "wish to live in a normal and democratic country, rather than a nation whose authorities make money through corruption," Interfax quoted them as saying on 14 April. The students asked for a meeting with President Eduard Shevardnadze, but were ignored. Some of the protesters had earlier petitioned the government over the closure of the independent television station Rustavi-2 in 2001.
The date of this year's protest was timed to coincide with a major student protest 25 years ago in April 1978, when young people took to the streets to demand that the Soviet-era constitutional article proclaiming Russian as Georgia's official language be revoked. At that time, Soviet officials relented and declared Georgian as an official language along with Russian.
The Georgian students key demand -- democratizing the composition of election commissions --is often the core dispute in post-Soviet elections. Not a single election in the former Soviet states has been given an unqualified characterization of "free and fair" by Western observers and opposition groups, and many former Soviet-era officials like Shevardnadze have remained in power precisely because of such commissions. The executive's explicit control over them means long before election day they are filled either by either close political allies of the top leadership or in the case of Georgia, appointed by the president himself.
In Azerbaijan, for example, the government recently announced that only the parties already in parliament could gain a seat on the Central Election Commission; just as in past years, efforts by the foreign community to push for greater pluralism had only limited success. In Belarus, officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and various Western ambassadors failed to persuade the administration to include opposition parties in the national and local election commissions.
A case could be made that with so many political parties and a splitting of votes in transitional countries, a numeric formula is a rational solution to the problem of evening the playing field before elections. Yet the reason political rivals of entrenched Soviet-era despots fight so hard on the issue of election commissions is simple: without at least some kind of sanctioned opposition presence inside the commission, the opposition cannot trust election officials to apply election law fairly and to count the votes accurately. Authoritarian governments resist the admission of the opposition groups into their controlled election commissions for precisely this reason -- if their opponents and the public at large could see into the inner workings of the commissions, they might deter or at least expose fraud and undermine their control and fixing of the outcome of the elections.
Democratic opposition leaders believe they need a physical presence inside the commissions to deter fraud.. External election monitors, officially authorized or organized informally by NGOs, have simply not proven effective as a deterrent to ballot-box tampering or obstruction of democratic participation. And while the staff of Western aid programs providing technical assistance might focus on party building or reaching constituents of various types, they are not going to lead an aggressive political struggle to insist on opposition parity in the commissions in defiance of host government leaders -- especially with the ever-present possibility of punishment or expulsion for such challenges. During his 2 June national radio address, President Shevardnadze singled out an unnamed international organization that he claimed was interfering in Georgia's elections by backing the student opposition, Interpress reported on 2 June. He mentioned that the organization had helped culture and science -- thereby tacitly identifying it as the George Soros-backed Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF).
U.S. charity law prohibits tax-exempt charitable organizations like the Soros foundations from funding political parties and campaigns abroad, although broad educational programs and technical assistance to coalitions of parties in elections are acceptable under U.S. law. OSGF officials say they have not funded Kmara per se, and refer to a telephone conversation held between President Shevardnadze and George Soros on 5 June. Shevardnadze was said to express his gratitude to Soros for his support of scientists for many years, "Sakartvelos Respublika" reported on 6 June. For his part, Soros confirmed that he is "not going to be involved in internal political processes" but "will commit to free and fair elections and support democratic elections," "Sakartvelos Respublika" reported, adding that the two agreed to contact each other again if any "misunderstandings" arose.
In a pointed comment covered by local television channels in Tbilisi, OSGF's executive director, Alexander Lomaia, noted that there were two presidents in Eastern Europe who had suppressed the activities of the Soros foundations in their countries: Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav leader now on trial for war crimes in The Hague, and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who for a time was subject to a travel ban by the EU and the U.S., adding that he would not like to see Shevardnadze become the third such president to ban Soros activity.
The State Security Ministry claimed Soros had allocated $1.5 million to aid political parties to "provoke destabilization and arrange a coup," "Tribuna" reported on 22 March. In response to this alleged threat, the ministry drafted legislation requiring that all parties declare the sources of their income, which has been approved by the National Security Council and is soon to be reviewed by parliament. Yet the government of Georgia has not provided any evidence that Soros or any other Western donor has contributed directly to any Georgian political party.
In an article published on the Soros-sponsored eurasianet.org (see below under "Recommended News Links"), OSGF representatives are cited as denying that any direct support has gone to Kmara specifically, saying $500,000 was set aside for a general Election Support Program, to promote vigorous political debate and balanced media coverage. Officials say only that a large coalition of youth, student, and civil society NGOs were funded to promote public education in support of free and fair elections. As a nonregistered group without legal status, it would be difficult for a loosely structured movement like Kmara to be supported by Western donors in any event.
So far the protests have been peaceful, without major reprisals. Nine students were detained during a protest in front of the Interior Ministry on 12 June, the Human Rights Information and Documentation Center reported in a statement of protest the same day. The students were trying to write slogans on the walls of the Interior Ministry building, according to Caucasus Press and the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor of Tbilisi's Mtatsminda-Krtsanisi Raion has summoned David Gamkrelidze of the New Rightists and Zhvania of the United Democrats, two of the five opposition party leaders involved in recent demonstrations, for questioning on 11 and 12 June, respectively, Caucasus Press reported on 12 June. The two were warned that organizing an unsanctioned demonstration is punishable by a prison term of up to five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 June 2003).
As with allegations about similar antigovernment activity by former administration officials in Ukraine, Belarus, and elsewhere in the region, suspicions have surfaced about possible Russian sponsorship of the student protest to keep Georgia unstable and in Russia's orbit. According the 10 June article on eurasianet.org on 10 June, Prime-News Agency reported on 21 April that Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, leader of the National Democratic Party and spokeswoman for the pro-Shevardnadze bloc known as For New Georgia, said Russian special services were planning the protest movement and would finance at least one television station for the group's propaganda. Kmara's own members ridiculed the notion, saying their protest was homegrown from widespread discontent felt by Georgian students over the Shevardnadze administration's inability to promote stability.
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