In the Caucasus, Georgia is often seen as spoiled for choices. But, for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement, the big choice boils down to just one: with the West or against it.
Or, in other words, with the United National Movement (UNM) or against it. At an April 19 rally in downtown Tbilisi meant to prove to Georgia that the former ruling party is still a political force with which to be reckoned, President Saakashvili whipped up hundreds of supporters with memories of the Russian army's invasion of the country in 2008, and the world’s support for Georgia.
Leveraging lingering fears that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is driving Georgia away from the West, Saakashvili called on Georgians to “make a choice” against occupation.
“I want to say that the Georgian people will choose, not between traitors and half-traitors, but between patriots and even bigger patriots,” he said, speaking to a crowd that stretched down Rustaveli Avenue for more than a block.
“If we choose dishonorably, we will receive complete occupation,” he asserted. (Tbilisi argues that the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, housing thousands of Russian troops since the 2008 war, are under occupation.) “If we stand with honor, we will free the entire country.”
Anticipating the punch, a session of leaders from Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition had taken to the airwaves before the rally to remind voters that they firmly support membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Yet the president’s message clearly hit home with the crowd. Nino, 50, a UNM supporter from Tbilisi, said she hopes the size of the protest will “scare” Prime Minister Ivanishvili.
“I came to show that we [Georgians]…choose the European political course. Mr. Bidzina says he is pro-Western, but his actions are completely different,” she said.
Playing to popular misgivings about Russia and its aims within Georgia is old hat in Georgian politics, but, amidst creeping attempts at reconciliation with Moscow, it apparently is a card that the UNM believes can trump any held by the less politically experienced Georgian Dream coalition.
Ironically, though, despite their wariness toward Russia, many ordinary Georgians often express more immediate frustration with the country’s lackluster economic situation – and with the lack of improvement since Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream came to power last October.
Sixty-one percent of 3,103 respondents in an April survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers named jobs as their primary concern. Territorial integrity showed gains on past surveys, but finished a distant second at 34 percent of respondents questioned.
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said they believed the country is heading in the right direction.
The UNM's ability to convince such Georgians otherwise has been hampered of late by a series of accusations which have placed it more on the defensive than the offensive.