The opposition to Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has cornered itself by making his resignation the only demand of the street protests in Tbilisi — and the only topic of a potential dialogue with the authorities. Meanwhile, the protest actions organized by the opposition are rapidly losing steam, whereas Saakashvili has been much cooler under pressure than the famous tie-chewing video of him would imply.
It's hard to say how many Georgians really want to see Saakashvili gone today, in the midst of economic crisis. (His second — and last — term in office officially expires only in 2013). It's worth remembering, however, that two previous Georgian presidents had both left office prematurely, ousted as a result of either a violent coup d'etat (Gamsakhurdia) or the fairly peacefull "Rose Revolution" (Shevardnadze). The burden is on the opposition to explain why forcing the third president in a row out of office by force or pressure would benefit Georgia's long-term national interests — especially in light of the opposition's loudly professed fondness of "constitutional order" and the "rule of law."
Besides, some faces in the opposition camp can't help but raise eyebrows. Take Irakli Alasania. At the tender age of 35, Alasania boasts a resume full of law enforcement jobs, including a two-year stint as deputy Minister of State Security. Everyone watching the U.N. Security Council meetings on tv during the August war between Russia and Georgia remembers Alasania, then Georgia's U.N. representative, passionately defending Saakashvili's aggression against South Ossetia. But in December, Alasania quit his job, returned to Tbilisi, and immediately accused Saakashvili in "falling into a Russian trap."
It beats me what differences an "opposition leader" like Alasania can have with Saakashvili. Apparently similar to those that Judas had with Jesus Christ when Jesus was arrested by temple-guards in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Not surprisingly, Alasania and another sworn Saakashvili foe (and, naturally, his close ally in the very recent past), Nino Burjanadze, are darlings of the American media. The Wall Street Journal has explained why: "Both speak fluent English, and want the U.S.-Georgia relationship to grow." (Ironically, Salome Zourabichvili, a real opposition figure – she broke with Saakashvili back in 2005 — who also wants the U.S.-Georgia relationship to grow, is virtually unknown in the United States. No wonder: born in Paris, Zourabichvili speaks fluent French.)
It is becoming increasingly evident that barred an unforeseen event — like a provocation by a "rogue" opposition group followed by mass riots — Saakashvili will successfully navigate through the rough waters of public discontent to remain in power.
And this raises an uneasy question of what Russia's policy toward Georgia should be. For now, Russia has poor choices. On the one hand, having labeled Saakasvili a "political corpse", Moscow has made it abundantly clear that, with Saakashvili in place, its dialogue with Tbilisi is out of the question. On the other hand, Moscow should realize that all major opposition groups are as strongly anti-Russian as Saakashvili. In other words, Russia will be facing hostile Georgian leadership until 2013 — with Saakashvili at the helm — or until 2014-2015, should the opposition have its way by ousting Saakashvili and holding a new presidential election.
Russia should adopt a new Georgia policy, a policy that would temper Moscow's passion for the "regime change" in Tbilisi and would instead employ a direct outreach to Georgian people. (Recent examples of such "over-the-head" approaches have been provided by President Barack Obama with his video message to Iranians celebrating Nowruz and easing restrictions on travel and money transfer to Cuba).
The goal of this new policy would be preventing further alienation of Georgia's political elites and helping pro-Russian (or at least, Russia-"neutral") forces come to power during the next electoral cycle.
The time for such an outreach is ripe. There is a lingering feeling in Georgian political circles that Saakashvili had "overinvested" in Georgia's relations with the United States at the expense of its relations with Russia. There is also a sober realization of the fact that with two wars and economic crisis at hand, the Obama administration will make Georgia a lesser priority than it has been for the previous administration. Should Russia decide to unclench its fist, this move will likely be met with a guarded welcome the other side of the Caucasus mountains.
A few concrete steps could be envisioned. First, Russia should lift the 2006 embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water as it is only hurting its own consumers. After all, it's little secret that the decision to impose the wine embargo, although political in its core, was heavily lobbied by Russia's beer and hard liquor manufacturers. The immediate resumption of the cross-border trade will also be taken as a friendly gesture by many ordinary Georgians.
Second, Moscow should lift all restrictions in traveling to Russia and resume granting working and tourist visas — in addition to educational and "humanitarian" that it began issuing in March. Completely visa-free travel should be allowed to Georgians having close relatives in Russia. Entry to Russia should only be closed to top Georgian officials and all individuals suspected in planning and executing Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia.
Third, Russia should come up with a list of bilateral business projects. Here, soliciting advice from Kakha Bendukidze, former Russian "oligarch" and former Saakashvili state minister on economic reforms, could help. Having been accused by the opposition in promoting "too-Russia-oriented" economic policy, Bendukidze was finally forced, in February, out of government. He might be available, and giving him a call would be a good idea.
Lastly, when the Russian ambassador to Georgia is to return to Tbilisi, Moscow should consider replacing the current one, a career diplomat Vyacheslav Kovalenko, with a public figure who will be known to and popular with the Georgian people. In 1991, Alexandr Bovin, a prominent journalist and TV personality, was appointed as the Russian ambassador to Israel. Immensely popular with Israelis of Russian origin and the Israeli public at large, Bovin has profoundly contributed to improving Russia-Israel relations.
(When thinking about Alla Pugacheva who, at age 60, has just announced the completion of her outstanding artistic career, I'm only half-joking. To be sure, Pugacheva will consider the ambassadorship to Georgia as a demotion. But you get my point).
Recently addressing an audience at the London School of Economic and Political Science, President Medvedev spoke of "the deep-rooted friendship that has long existed between the Russian and Georgian peoples." It would be a shame to make this friendship a hostage of a madman sitting in the presidential palace in Tbilisi.