Saturday, November 10, 2007

PART IV – Recent History and Current Events. Or: Walk Softly and Don’t Even Carry a Stick While Reading This Post, Please

NEW ANNOUNCEMENT, SAME AS THE OLD ANNOUNCEMENT: This post is, again, being written with the intent merely to inform you, the reader, about third-person events in the country where I am living. These events have been very volatile and opinions here differ wildly, but it is not my intent to prioritize or promote any opinion, agenda, course of action, or political belief. Any content that appears to do this is unintentional, and no part of this post should be taken to be an official stance by the United States Peace Corps, the United States Government, or any member of either, including me.

Now, keep up: “Current Events” was supposed to be part four of Better Know a Georgia, to follow part three, “Recent History.” However, current events have become quite current indeed, and in light of some stunning developments in Georgia, both topics are now extremely relevant, so I’ll discuss them together, and I’ll pretend that the Bonus Supra Coverage was called Better Know a Georgia Part III the whole time, and we won’t discuss this again. Ok? Good.

So, as you may have seen on the news or read if you don’t tend to skip past the International section, we’ve had an interesting few days here. [redacted]

Everything started last Friday, when an enormous opposition political rally took hold of Tbilisi, the capital. This rally had been in the works for a while, and thousands of people from all over the country showed up in front of the Parliament building to voice their displeasure with President Mikhael Saakashvili and others in his government. [redacted] The day before the rally began, members of the opposition party drove through the main part of town in Chokhatauri, honking their horns and waving flags, and held a mini-rally before heading to Tbilisi. So many people were headed there that the police started shutting down the roads into the capital – coworkers of mine, headed somewhere else for a conference last Thursday, were pulled over on the highway and asked if they were headed to Tbilisi. I don’t know if they would have been allowed to continue or not, had they actually been going there.

The demonstration began Friday, and was peaceful, if boisterous. Everyone in Chokhatauri watched coverage of it on the news; [redacted]. It continued through the weekend and into the beginning of this week, with little interest lost. I was wondering how much longer thousands of people would be willing to stand in the street and chant[1]. It turns out that it was longer than Saakashvili would permit them to stand there. On Wednesday, police officers with riot control gear attempted to disperse the crowd, which had been blocking traffic on Rustaveli Avenue – the main conduit through downtown Tbilisi – since Friday. Demonstrators fought back, and pandemonium ensued. Saakashvili maintained, afterwards, that his officers had merely been trying to restore traffic flow, and that they had acted within necessary bounds to clear protestors. He also claims that the entire demonstration was orchestrated by Russian interests who were trying to destabilize Georgia. The opposition says that the police started wantonly assaulting innocent people, chasing and beating people who were trying to flee. Whatever happened, hundreds of people ended up getting sent to the hospital as the streets of Tbilisi turned into a war zone through the entire afternoon and evening.

That afternoon, I was in the office of my NGO, working like it was any other day. The days leading up to Wednesday had been quiet in Chokhatauri, with no indications of swelling local emotions tied to the demonstration. I had lunch that day with a volunteer from Kutaisi who was bringing me books for my local ECO Club, and while we were eating[2], I glanced at the TV and saw one man hitting another man at what seemed to be the demonstration. But I paid it no mind, because we were discussing other things, and when I got back to the office I was not under the impression that anything was drastically out of the ordinary. That is, until I got a call from Peace Corps, telling me that there was violence in Tbilisi and that I had to return home immediately. Friends, I don’t mind telling you this – I was pissed off. I had a lot of work to do that day, and while a part of my mind relaxed immediately and went into Early-Day-at-School mode, the rest of it was upset that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the work I had to do on one of the rare days that I actually did have plenty of work to be doing. I got off the phone and told my coworkers, who were confused.

“But nothing is happening here,” they said.

“I know,” I said. “But Peace Corps has rules about this sort of thing, and it wants all the volunteers to go home.” I told them that if I did not comply, I might get sent back to America.

“Fine,” they said, laughing. “We’ll let you know if we get killed.”

Now, I want to make clear that I almost never have problems with Peace Corps’s safety and security policies, and I don’t in this instance, either. I was angrier more because I didn’t realize how bad the situation was in Tbilisi, and because I legitimately had a lot of work to do and there was no security threat to me whatsoever in my town. But I know that Peace Corps has to do what it has to do, and I admire the extent to which they take our security seriously. I have never felt seriously in danger in this country, and that is due in very large part to the preparation and continued surveillance of all situations by the Peace Corps staff. I say all this because I know Peace Corps staff reads this blog, when they find the time to do so, and because in the interest of full narration of the events of the week I am going to disclose that, after I packed up and went home from work on Wednesday, I went to a birthday party even though we were supposed to stay home.

At the party, for the birthday of a teen girl who helps frequently at my NGO, we sat around the table for the supra, and everyone’s eyes were glued to the television. Images of the afternoon’s events in Tbilisi were being played on repeat; police advancing in riot gear on demonstrators, people getting beaten up and trying to run away. There was even an oft-replayed image of a bloody bandage on the floor of a church, which was explained in Georgian that I didn’t understand. Shortly thereafter, President Saakashvili came on television himself to address the crisis. [redacted]

When I arrived home, my family was, of course, also watching television. As I watched more coverage with them, one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen on television occurred. We were watching Imedi, one of the three main broadcast stations in Georgia, which is quite critical of the government. Suddenly, the anchors looked confused and stood up at the desk – something that’s odd to see, because of the fact that TV anchors wear jeans that are usually concealed from view. They removed their earpieces and moved off-camera as an out-of-breath man took their place. He talked quickly at the camera while repeatedly checking his cell phone, which kept ringing. Then, when he was done saying whatever he said, the camera was pointed towards the ceiling, the set lights were all struck, and Imedi went dark. I had no idea what had just happened, since I’d understood none of the Georgian the man spoke. My new host sister tried to explain it to me by saying, “Politsia,” (“the police”) and mimed pulling an electrical cord out of the wall. I found out later that the government had shut down two of the three television stations.

The next day, Thursday, everyone was on edge. Nobody knew what was going to happen. School was canceled, so many of the students took it as an opportunity to march around the center of town, chanting that “Mischa must go.” Rumors were flying everywhere. And I was not surprised to get another phone call from Peace Corps, telling me [redacted] that the President had declared a 15 day state of emergency. [redacted] I had no idea how the country would react to the violence, or whether there would be more. I was just glad I was allowed to be at work, because I had a Document Your World club meeting that day, and I thought that “Dan isn’t allowed to leave his house today” would not seem particularly convincing to the kids. That evening, after work, I went to my tutor’s house for a tutoring session, and they were – of course – watching the news, on the only station that was allowed to continue broadcasting during the state of emergency. Saakashvili came on to give another address, and in this one, he stated that he would be calling presidential elections on January 5, many months before they were scheduled, and also putting a referendum to voters on when to hold parliamentary elections.[3] This is what everyone had wanted, and my tutor’s family was quite happy.

[redacted] my tutor told me. She was referring to the nonviolent coup that swept Saakashvili himself into power, in November 2003, which has usually been referred to since then as the “Rose Revolution.”[4] Saakashvili, a Columbia University-educated Georgian politician who had at one time been a member of then-current president Eduard Shevardnadze before leaving it to found his own party, was swept into power with 96% of the vote in a presidential election following Shevardnadze’s resignation, which he tendered after weeks of massive protests in Tbilisi concerning what was thought to be Shevardnadze’s corrupt government.[5] So there are some parallels here, although Saakashvili is not resigning (as I mentioned in my last post, which I have since redacted after a request from Peace Corps of all volunteers not to mention political news that we receive from them) and is merely calling new elections, which he says he will win.

So that is where things stand, as of now. The country seems to be rapidly finding its way back to normal, and [redacted] we do not seem, currently, to be in any danger. I will update you more if things change.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in further developments – and things will surely remain interesting up until, and through, the election – I recommend the site, which has up-to-date stories in English. One interesting story that I am just reading now: Imedi TV, which is currently managed by Rupert Murdoch and News Corp because the former managing partner decided to finance the opposition demonstration and didn’t want Imedi to be accused of bias[6], apparently had its equipment destroyed when it was shut off by police on Wednesday night, and is saying it won’t be able to go back on the air for three months. Hopefully, cool heads prevail on all sides for the foreseeable future, and everything will remain normal for us volunteers, so we can get our work done. Needless to say, I was not expecting things to be this…exciting during my time here, but at least it makes for a good story to tell.

Speaking of story to tell, I apologize for the mediocre writing-quality of this post and the lack of snappy prose and jokes.[7] I am quite ill today, from a combination of a nasty cold and eating cookies that have apparently made me sick. Naturally, my family wants me to go to another wedding tonight. I’m hoping to God that it’s laid back, because otherwise I’m just going to go to bed at 9 again, like I did last night. More soon, friends.

[1]A popular chant, apparently, during political demonstrations, consists of one man screaming, “Sakartvelos gauMAR–” and the crowd screaming back, “—JOS!” Because I am such an excellent cultural teacher, you should know what this means by now.
[2]An aside, for those of you who remember my discussion of local restaurants: we ate at the second of the two restaurants, and there were actually other people there! At noon on a Wednesday! It was shocking, and my classification of the place a an actual restaurant was affirmed, even despite the fact that the one menu was handwritten and tacked to a wall, and that the proprietor’s answer to my entirely reasonable, “What kinds of limonati do you have?” question was a scowl and the response, “The Chokhatauri kind,” even though this answer makes no sense at all.
[3]One of the specific complaints held by the opposition was that Saakashvili had changed the date of next fall’s elections, putting the presidential election and parliamentary elections on the same day. He said it was logistical; the opposition claimed he was trying to gain an unfair election advantage.
[4]When it’s mentioned in the American press, it is usually coupled with Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” which was very similar and at about the same time, and called one of the two “color revolutions” that were supposedly about eastern bloc countries attempting further independence from Russia.
[6]I knew that it was currently owned by News Corp, but did not know the “why” until I read this article. It is interesting that the former managing owner wants to retain an image of impartiality despite a pretty widespread notion, here, that Imedi is the anti-government network and Rustavi2 is the pro-government network. That’s what everyone in Chokhatauri thinks, anyway. I, of course, wouldn’t know, because I don’t understand what is said on either channel.
[7]And footnotes!


ruth said...

Hey Dan. It sounds like things have gotten exciting! Hopefully it will cool down, because it does sound like there are a lot of hotheads's one thing for police to intervene in a riot, another for them to beat people. Good thing you're in Georgia narrating because as my usual news consumption here consists of whatever the top 3 articles on yahoo news are, I had no idea this was going on. I assume back in the states I'd have NPR and would have been informed.

As to other important things -- your footnotes! I was very excited to see the links, and happy that I can just hit back. Very high tech. They worked great for me on the Supra post, but on this last post if I click on a link it sends me into an endless feedback of asking me to log in with my google account. When I am already logged into gmail in a different screen. And then it logs me out of gmail. So...hopefully this is fixable?

eka said...

hi Dani
I read your journal

it was so heartfull abnout this current nes about ra;;yies and tear gas in Georgia, all the international news websites were talking about Georgia,
You have no idea how surprised I was when mom shoews me an article saying about rally in Georgia,
and second day at school one

eka said...

teacher run in the phography class holding newspaper in his hand an d saiying: eka did you see this? and how you gonna be diplomat of country where there is no democracy? (that article was saying hat in georgia there was rally against the president because he leads country far from democracy)