There is no doubt that Russia would like to weaken Georgia, which it sees as a child gone astray. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist regions that have declared their independence from Georgia, are supported by Russia, and a 2006 Russian embargo on Georgian wine and water has caused more damage to the economy and public morale than anyone could have guessed. But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there's some truth to the accusations, Saakashvili isn't off the hook. The Russians didn't prevent Georgia from raising pensions or force the administration to tamper with court cases or assume a position of arrogance that has so infuriated the population.
But what soon became clear from Wednesday's events was that Saakashvili was frightened. The opposition's tactics looked very familiar—they were modeled after the tactics Saakashvili used to topple Shevardnadze. That included an outside funder with deep pockets, a much-watched opposition TV channel, and the ingenious use of flags, slogans, and symbols to simplify an anti-government message around a central rallying point.
And yet, even after the events at Mtkvari, there does not seem to be the appetite for another revolution. In 2003, people were unified, focused, and triumphant; now, they are weary and upset. People worry that a revolution would throw the country into turmoil. It would also turn back all the enormous—and real—changes Saakashvili has made.
Thursday night, Saakashvili found an ingenious way out. During a televised speech, he surprised everyone by calling for new presidential elections in January 2008, defusing a situation that could have easily turned into revolution or war. By the rules of the Georgian Constitution, that means he will have to resign on Nov. 22—45 days ahead of the polls and the fourth anniversary of the Rose Revolution.
In my Tbilisi neighborhood, you could feel a palpable sense of relief. "Everything is going to be fine now," both my neighbor and my fruit seller told me. Depending on whom you ask, Saakashvili's gambit is either a political masterstroke meant to restore confidence in his presidency or a sign of his commitment to democratic ideals. But even among his biggest detractors, Saakashvili has quickly gone from autocrat to mensch.
It's unclear how this week's events will play in Western circles. Georgia's carefully managed business sector will be the first to suffer. Unlike neighboring Azerbaijan, Georgia doesn't have the gas or oil that makes investors more amenable to risk, and Georgia's competitive advantage lay in its being a relatively stable and easy place to do business. No longer.
Meanwhile, the opposition members have quickly switched gears as they look for potential presidential candidates among their coalition. They have promised to create a European parliamentary system of government should they win. Many people think that the coalition will survive only as long as they have a common enemy in Saakashvili. The Georgian government has decided not to lift the state of emergency ban on independent media, which will make running an election campaign much more difficult for the opposition. Without an obvious front-runner—and with reports of Imedi smashed beyond all recognition—it is far from over for Saakashvili yet.
But even those of us who understand that change comes slowly, that poverty is hard to cure, that inflation is often inevitable, and that sometimes you just might need to crack a few eggs (though not heads) were shocked by the heavy-handed response to Wednesday's protests. I was at the demonstration at Mtkvari when a friend called to warn me that hundreds of special forces were coming my way. People panicked and began to run. Special forces came from both bridges that flanked the area, leaving protestors with no way out. People were hit with tear gas and rubber bullets, and some of us ran for shelter on a small cafe boat moored along the river. An older man who worked there tried to calm people down. "Don't worry," he said, "I used to be a policeman. Nothing will happen to you." Two men tried to get the engine going. "We'll sail away if we have to," the former policeman said. But where to?