Georgian youth activists take back seat for 2008 presidential vote
text: Gazeta.kz , exclusively for Gazeta.kz
In 2003, the Georgian youth movement Kmara (Enough) emerged as one of the headline-grabbers of the Rose Revolution. More than four years later, the buzz surrounding Georgian youth activists appears to have faded.
Although young activists for both former President Mikheil Saakashvili and the opposition have worked for weeks on the campaign trail, political scientists believe that their impact on Georgia's January 5 vote will be minimal. As Saakashvili and opposition frontrunner candidate Levan Gachechiladze hit the campaign trail over Georgia's December 31-January 2 New Year holiday, youth activists sympathetic to their cause followed closely behind.
Their aim was clear: to scoop up the undecided voters who, according to some polls, account for nearly a quarter of the potential electorate. The numbers could prove critical. A presidential candidate must win more than 50 percent of the overall vote to be declared the winner in the first round; if not, a second round of voting follows within two weeks of the initial election.
For pro-Saakashvili youth activists, meet-and-greets are their specialty. The Youth Office of Saakashvili Supporters claims to have 3,000 registered volunteers in Tbilisi, with offices also in the regional centers of Kutaisi, Georgia's second largest city, and Telavi, center of the Kakheti wine region.
On the opposition side, a slightly stronger attempt has been made at grabbing public attention with protests or other public displays. On December 20, youth activists connected with the pro-Gachechiladze Equality Institute briefly snarled traffic in downtown Tbilisi with a march from Tbilisi State University to parliament, where they hung anti-Saakashvili posters and white neck scarves, a symbol of the Gachechiladze campaign. Twelve activists were arrested on December 30 for spraying graffiti. Seven were released from custody and five were fined 400 lari (about $252) each for the damage, local media reported.
Davit Dalakishvili, an organizer in this youth movement, describes his group as a melting pot of anti-Saakashvili sentiment, rather than as an organized structure tied to a single candidate. He puts the movement's number at "at least 200," though says that there is no organized effort to count the number of activists. As with Saakashvili, supporters are urban-based; apart from Tbilisi, they are primarily located in Kutaisi and the western Georgian city of Zugdidi.
"We united youth who did not want to join any party," Dalakishvili said, noting that the movement started before the "November events" - a reference to the November 7 crackdown on anti-government protests and demonstrations that preceded Saakashvili's call for an early presidential election.
Political scientist Malkhaz Matsaberidze, however, maintains that the nature of the election limits any real impact the youth groups might have. While Georgian youth have traditionally been very politically active, activism alone, he said, could not address the "biggest problem" in Georgian politics -- the lack of a strong opposition candidate.
"People are disappointed with the actions of authorities. … But they don't see any force in the opposition, [especially] since the footage that was aired," Matsaberidze said in reference to audio clips reportedly of opposition candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili discussing plans with an Interior Ministry official for an alleged post-election uprising. Patarkatsishvili has since indicated that he will withdraw his candidacy on January 4, a day before the elections.
Nonetheless, states Dr. Tina Gogueliani, while youth groups alone are not enough for Saakashvili or Gachechiladze to win, they can "contribute to victory" for a party.
The youth movements, she said, play an important role outside of merely garnering new votes; they provide political parties with an outlet to air their more "radical" ideas.
"I think that all political parties or forces are highly interested to involve the youth," said Gogueliani, a political scientist with Tbilisi's International Center on Conflict and Resolution. "Young people are much more radically motivated. Their radical positions are much more accepted [and] something that opposition forces themselves cannot express, can be expressed by young people who support them."
Tbilisi State University's Matsaberidze believes that pro-opposition youth activists are trying to mimic Kmara (Enough), the outspoken group of Saakashvili-friendly youth activists that played a key role in voicing public frustrations with ex-President Eduard Shevardnadze before the 2003 Rose Revolution. "They are doing what the movement of Kmara did in its time," Matsaberidze said. "They are using those methods that Kmara used. They are using it as an example - what they saw, what they noticed from Kmara."
While opposition activist Dalakishvili's movement uses Kmara-like techniques, including catchy slogans and street demonstrations, he shrugs off any comparison with Kmara. The anti-Saakashvili movement is deliberately unstructured, he argues - an approach which Dalakishvili claims is at odds with what he describes as Kmara's "several thousand" highly trained volunteers.
"We did not want any structure," he said. "Kmara was established for a concrete aim [while] our organization will continue to exist. Our main aim is to … strengthen civil activity."
Giorgi Kandelaki, a Kmara activist during the Rose Revolution and former Saakashvili administration analyst, also downplays any comparison with Georgia's new youth movements.
The most "fundamental" difference is Georgia's current political climate and the atmosphere that existed under ex-President Shevardnadze, Kandelaki says. "They are trying to imitate some of the methods that Kmara used," he said in a telephone interview from Vilnius. "But still there are significant differences between them."
While Kmara's demonstrations were used to protest elections rigged by the Shevardnadze government and to regain Georgia's democratic orientation, today's youth movements cannot put such claims against the Saakashvili government, he said.
Size, he continued, is another factor. According to Kandelaki, during "peace time," Kmara had 3,000 volunteers; that number expanded during the run-up to the Rose Revolution.
Saakashvili youth activist spokesperson Salome Denidze also denies any attempt to create a second Kmara. Today's movement, she says, is less about demonstrations and more about dialogue.
"We go and make meetings and try to meet people - [create a] dialogue," Denidze said. "In this way, I think we have done quite a lot."
Molly Corso. EurasiaNet.org
Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.
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