TBILISI, Georgia — If Georgia’s opposition succeeds in driving President Mikheil Saakashvili from office, they will have a buxom, effusive, celebrity masseuse partly to thank for it.
Images of the Georgian leader posing with “Dr. Dot,” a striking American massage therapist, have materialized throughout Tbilisi, part of the opposition’s campaign to force Saakashvili to resign through ridicule.
The photos are the work of “April 9” and “Ratom?” (“Why?”), two youth groups affiliated with protests that began earlier this month and which initially brought more than 40,000 to the streets of the capital.
Among his sins, the president is accused of launching an unsuccessful war with Russia — which resulted in tens of thousands of refugees and a loss of 20 percent of Georgia's territory — mismanaging the economy, veering towards dictatorship and generally behaving in an unhinged manner.
The two groups have employed for their purposes a variety of agitprop actions and images from other less-than-flattering moments from the president’s past — for instance a shot of Saakashvili (from a BBC documentary on the war) nervously chewing on his tie.
During the demonstrations crowds have taken to hurling carrots and cabbages and depositing one unlucky rabbit at the presidential residence. (“Rabbit” is slang for coward in Georgian.) “April 9” members perform street theatre where they smile idiotically and try to embrace anyone within reach — a parody of the president’s gregariousness — or hop around like bunnies.
A popular folk singer, Giorgi Gachechiladze, whose brother ran against Saakashvili in elections last year, launched a television reality program in which he has fitted a room to look like a jail cell (symbolizing the police state that he says Georgia has become) and refuses to leave until the president steps down. Demonstrators have now erected mock cages in solidarity with Gachechiladze at protest sites.
Whether such blunt (and admittedly often primitive) humor will find its mark is far from clear. Numbers have dwindled at the protests to just over a thousand. Some opposition leaders are now calling for dialogue with the government. And although Saakashvili’s popularity appears to have dropped significantly since last August’s war, many still support him, while others say that they prefer stability to any more changes at the top.
But the strategy paradoxically also gives Saakashvili a taste of his own medicine. He rose to power on the back of a movement that first strove to degrade the image of the previous leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, before overthrowing him. A wildly popular television cartoon from the pre-Saakashvili era, shown nationally, depicted Shevardnadze as a senile, corrupt bumbler. “Ratom?” with its single word message and guerrilla tactics recalls “Kmara” (“Enough”) from the Rose Revolution.
“Humor is one of the most powerful political tools,” said Lasha Chkhartishvili, an "April 9" leader, standing recently outside Saakashvili’s presidential residence, as the crowd planted carrots on top of the wrought-iron fence. “When people laugh, they are no longer afraid.”
“Saakashvili is afraid,” he added. “He used these methods and knows how effective they are.”
With Dr. Dot, the opposition seems to have been delivered a wealth of material. Born Dorothy Stein, she is not your typical massage therapist. Sting, Mariah Carey, Jay Z, the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa (who gave her the nickname) are among the hundreds of celebrities who have received her ministrations, which sometimes include her trademark technique of biting the client’s back. In addition, she writes a sex advice column and has posed for Penthouse magazine.
Dr. Dot is also not one to hide her light under a bushel — and therein lies the problem for Saakashvili. On her blog she described two sessions with the Georgian leader, the second taking place in Tbilisi.
“I am here for a week massaging my favorite client on earth (sorry Simon Cowell, you've been bumped down a notch from my #1 spot for now), president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, who invited me to his interesting country,” she gushes. Earlier she describes Saakashvili as “the best looking president on earth.”
The president, who is married with two children, and his staff maintain that everything was fully above board. Nevertheless, the story was picked up last month by Russia Today, the Kremlin’s satellite news channel and propaganda mouthpiece, and then by local broadcasters, who questioned whether the Georgian leader should be hiring someone as flamboyant as Dr. Dot while the country recovers from its war and copes with the global economic crisis. At issue is also whether Saakashvili employed the presidential plane and government funds to bring the “rock ‘n roll masseuse” first to Batumi on the Black Sea and then to the capital.
But what seems to have struck even more of a nerve is a single snapshot taken at the end of their first meeting in Berlin and lifted from Dr. Dot's website: the president with a goofy, satisfied grin, hair askew, arm draped around the massage therapist.
Dr. Dot herself says that the extensive detail of her blog is sufficient evidence that she has nothing to hide. And she provides evidence perhaps that the president has not entirely lost his sense of humor. Asked why his neck was so tense, he replied, “No kidding — I’ve got Russia sitting on it."
More GlobalPost dispatches on Georgia:
Is Georgia teetering toward instability?
In Georgia, "Misha" is hanging on