The street protests that raged against Georgia’s U.S.-backed president in recent days are, in part, the gambit of a smart young man with an eye to toppling his onetime boss by being his polar opposite.
In a land where leaders are expected to emote theatrically, 35-year-old opposition leader Irakli Alasania is a tamped-down anomaly. The lawyer, negotiator and diplomat is in his element one-on-one, gaze direct, voice low and measured. Standing before the cheering masses, he often appears stiff; seen from afar, his reserve turns to inscrutability.
But in a nation exhausted by upheaval, revolution and war, and increasingly wary of the sometimes irrational spontaneity that marks President Mikheil Saakashvili’s leadership, the buzz around the former U.N. ambassador continues to grow.
Alasania helped drive a lingering political dispute to a tumultuous head by joining ranks with more radical opposition leaders and calling people into the street to force the resignation of the president.
“What we’re seeing today in the streets of Georgia is not only a political process,” Alasania said during a pause between rallying crowds of demonstrators and meeting with a European Union representative. “It’s a huge mistrust of the government on the part of the people. I chose to be with the people and stand with the people in any way I can.”
That a young and politically untested figure is seriously discussed as the opposition’s most credible leader -- and a possible successor to Saakashvili -- is, in part, a sign of the paucity of plausible alternatives. But Alasania is also a clean slate: He has no political past to answer for. And for many people here, his lack of exposure carries its own kind of appeal.
“Georgians, as emotional people, demand leaders with charisma,” said Shalva Pichkhadze, a political analyst. “I’m not sure Irakli has charisma. [But] people regard him as a counterpoint to Saakashvili, because he’s rational.”
And in spots where it counts, Alasania has credibility. The breakaway republics now occupied by Russia after last summer’s war are a deeply painful subject for most Georgians; for Alasania, they are the backdrop of personal tragedy.
He was a teenager who volunteered to fight with his father, a Georgian general, when war erupted between the central government and separatists in the breakaway seaside republic of Abkhazia. On the blood-soaked day in 1993 when separatist guerrillas overran the port city of Sukhumi, his father was executed.
Alasania survived and, along with thousands of others, trudged through the mountains into Georgia proper.
“It was a terrible experience, the most tragic days, not only for me, but for all the people there,” he said. “After the military defeat, there was so much anger in society, so much pain.”
Like many Georgians who came of age in tumultuous post-Soviet times, Alasania grew up fast. He studied law and was a father by the time he was 18. He worked in the security and defense ministries and served in the self-declared Abkhaz government in exile.
In 2005, Saakashvili asked him to represent Georgia in peace talks with the Abkhaz leadership. Alasania hesitated; in a broad sense, this would mean negotiating with the people who killed his father. But in the end, he agreed.
“It started hard, with a lot of mutual accusations,” he said. “Eventually we came to the understanding that you can’t change the past, and decided to work on making sure this couldn’t happen again.”
Alasania was soon promoted again, becoming Georgia’s representative to the United Nations in 2006. When Saakashvili launched a military assault on another breakaway republic, South Ossetia, responding to months of Russian provocations, Alasania was thousands of miles away.
Now both separatist republics have been recognized by Moscow as independent states. For Alasania, the war that shaved away 20% of Georgia’s land was “the final stroke” in his souring sentiments toward Saakashvili.
“The war was avoidable by direct talks with Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he said. “We had debates, but I was never listened to.”
Alasania said that by May last year he had decided to break with Saakashvili, driven away by what he characterizes as an increasingly authoritarian streak and the erosion of democratic institutions such as independent courts and news media.
But he waited until December to resign. He said he didn’t want to abandon the government at a moment of crisis; others are skeptical.
“If it was opposition to the war, he’d have quit earlier, let’s face it,” said Lawrence Sheets, a Tbilisi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think tank. “It’s just a matter of the right moment.”
As protests drag along in the streets, observers here are wondering whether Alasania came charging out too fast.
The peaceful nature of the protests, coupled with the opposition’s failure to mobilize the predicted 150,000 demonstrators, has infused the government with a sense of having already crossed the major hurdle. Saakashvili repeated his offer to hold talks with opposition leaders, but if he’s been rattled by the demonstrations, he’s kept it to himself.
In the small hours of Saturday, Saakashvili’s advisors began to filter into a back-street bar crowded with foreign reporters. Next came his bodyguards. The rumor spread: Misha, as he is known, is coming. And then there was the president himself, plunking down at a table, tossing back homemade wine and laughing loudly at his own jokes.
The message was clear: There’s nothing to see here. These protests mean nothing. Saakashvili scoffed at the idea that there had been any crisis to begin with; foreign reporters had invented the whole thing. These people have protested many times, he said. The same people, the same slogans.
Then he went back to giggling about women who’ve posed for nudie magazines, trips to Turkey and paparazzi.
But Alasania appears ready for a long standoff. He prefers not to discuss “my presidential ambitions,” but they plainly exist. He’s planning trips to outlying regions to give voters a chance to know him better; he says his confrontation with the government will continue.
Saakashvili, he said, “has a record of missing opportunities and squandering opportunities. I don’t believe this political crisis will be solved in a matter of days.”