Saturday, September 29, 2007
Street theatre season begins
In the Soviet era, questions of power and politics were decided by a small group of men, meeting in private within the red walls of the Kremlin in Moscow. The masses in far-flung places like Tbilisi and Kiev played no role whatsoever in deciding whether Nikita Khrushchev should remain in power in 1964, or who would replace Leonid Brezhnev as their leader after his death in 1982.
These days, however, the masses rule. Or at least whoever can get the masses out on his side does.
Protests against Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili began today in Tbilisi. Duelling demonstrations by the supports of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his archrival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, could begin as early as Sunday (I'll be on CTV's flagship morning program Canada AM Monday morning to talk about why).
And Russia's Duma elections this December, as well as the presidential elections coming in the spring, are expected to be marked by some of the largest protests (both for and against the current establishment) that country has seen since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
The Georgian protests (pictured) were sparked by a chain of events that first saw former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili make astonishing allegations that Saakashvili was not only corrupt, but had once ordered him to kill businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili. (He also suggested a government cover-up in the mysterious 2005 death of former prime minister Zurab Zhvania, saying Zhvania had died somewhere besides where his body was found.)
Two days later, on Thursday, Okruashvili was arrested and charged with extortion, money laundering, misuse of power and criminal negligence. Yesterday, his supporters took to the streets, 6,000 to 7,000 of them, according to Georgia's The Messenger newspaper.
Even without the usual Washington-versus-Moscow overtones, it would be a pretty complicated drama. But as Olga Allenova wrote in Russia's Kommersant newspaper, it's likely Moscow that encouraged Okruashvili to take on Saakashvili head-on. Whatever the truth of the back-and-forth allegations of criminality, the Kremlin has tired of Saakashvili, who came to power through the American-backed Rose Revolution in 2003, and is supporting Okruashvili's push to oust him. Post-Rose Revolution, the way to do that is to make it appear as though the streets are with your man.
A similar dynamic is playing out in Ukraine, where both the Kremlin-backed Yanukovich and the Western-friendly Yushchenko are each accusing the other side of election fraud before the first ballots are even cast.
The elections are so close that some tampering seems inevitable. "Half of Ukraine supports Orange [Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution ally Yulia Tymoshenko], and the other half Blue [Yanukovich], so a tiny additional margin added by cheating could make all the difference," Roman Koshovi, Lvov chairman of the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, an election-monitoring group, told my friend and colleague Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor. "The temptation to fix some ballots will be very strong on all sides," Koshovi added.
And when the cheating happens, people like Committee of Ukrainian Voters and the election monitoring team sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will be there to catch them and tell the world (or at least the Western media).
Which is why Canadian politician Gerard Kennedy got in trouble with the Donetsk cops today. With the stakes so high and the race so close (polls put Yanukovich ahead, but with the "orange team" attracting roughly the same amount when Yushchenko and Tymoshenko's support is combined), international monitors are seen not as arbiters, but as potential instigators. What they say could influence how big, and how motivated, the crowds in the streets are the next day.
As an aside, Canadian monitors are also seen as highly partisan, after some of them were spotted wearing orange during the 2004 showdown.
Whoever wins in Ukraine, the other side is likely to try and reverse the result on the streets of Kiev. Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko already have their tent cities set up.
Yanukovich's people are already camping on Independence Square, the site of the Orange Revolution three years ago. Tymoshenko's followers on Sofievsky Square, a few blocks up the hill.
Stay tuned. Just like in Georgia and Russia, the Ukrainian elections won't end when the voting does.