"This was no democracy," Georgian media reported a frustrated US Ambassador Richard Norland as saying after a violent February 8 bust-up in Tbilisi over Georgian President Mikheil Saakasvhili's annual state-of-the-nation speech.
The US embassy offered a more diplomatic version of the language used, and the European Union and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, among others, have expressed similar grievances. But the impression left was the same: Four months after becoming the first ex-Soviet republic in the South Caucasus to see a change of government via the ballot box, Georgia nonetheless is still having trouble getting democracy to fit right.
Ever sensitive to the political risk of being blamed, both at home and abroad, for causing Georgia to miss yet another chance at success, both government and opposition are now putting on a determined effort, by hook or by crook, to show that they're all about dialogue.
At least some of them. While deprecating the February 8 violence, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili drew the line at accepting an invitation from President Mikheil Saakashvili for talks about the issues bothering both sides. Rather, Parliamentary Secretary Davit Usupashvili, a senior member of the ruling Georgian Dream, stepped up to the plate.
The talks are "not without perspective," Usupashvili told reporters late on February 11 after a one-hour chit-chat with Saakashvili and United National Movement parliamentary leader Davit Bakradze, but, added the daily Rezonansi, "without a result." But while both sides agreed to keep on chatting, beneath the dialogue, daggers and darts still lie.
Two men have been fined and released for beating UNM parliamentarians; a third faces criminal charges for giving a bloody nose to senior MP Chiora Taktakishvili, one of the legislature's relatively few women members.
But the most critical thing, for many, is to prove they're in the right.
The police pointed fingers at pro-Saakashvili politicians (in particular, Tbilisi's mayor, Gigi Ugulava, who is locked in an ongoing tug-of-war about whether the police will come to him for questioning related to the protest or whether he will go, by force, if necessary, to the police); the UNM pointed fingers at the police, protesters and at the Georgian Dream.
And Saakashvili and Usupashvili, for all their strained attempt at diplomacy, pointed fingers at each other.
Claiming that the protesters had been made up, not of "the people," but "criminal groups" bent on causing trouble, Saakashvili, working himself up to a boil, gestured at reporters and urged them to "show me one country in the world" where such a ruckus would have taken place.
"Mr. President, if we're in a televised debate, I'm ready," the parliamentary speaker to his left interjected.
Accustomed to holding forth at length, the president, undeterred, soldiered on, charging that "deputies are being blackmailed by mafia methods" to fall in line with the Georgian Dream's legislative agenda, including, allegedly, prosecutors "arresting someone's children, wife, friend" -- a tactic, ironically enough, formerly attributed to Saakashvili-era prosecutors.
Phlegmatically, Usupashvili denied the use of blackmail, adding that Saakashvili "as the opposition leader, has more freedom now .. .than I had in the opposition one year ago."
Meanwhile, down in the bottom third of the screen on one TV station's broadcast, the unseen Ivanishvili held forth, incongruously in English, that "Unfortunately, Mikheil Saakashvili is still trying to irritate us with his lies . . . "
Taking it all in via television, some Tbilisi residents, at a loss for clear answers, asked a foreign reporter to tell them "whose provocation" the February 8 clash was; others, long accustomed to (and ashamed of) various sensational screw-ups by government and opposition alike, just tried to get on with ordinary life.
Where the process will end is anyone's guess. And in a country more experienced with political conflict than compromise, the ultimate answer may not be an easy one.
*This blog was amended on February 12, 2013 to note that Georgia was the first former Soviet republic in the South Caucasus to have a change of government via elections.