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Still protesting in Georgia

And that says a lot about the state of its democracy.

Demonstrators with flags march through the center of Tbilisi during a protest April 13, 2009. Thousands of Georgians took their campaign to oust Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili to his office. Several thousand marched on the newly built presidential residence that looks down on the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi, whistling and chanting "Misha, Go!" (Irakly Gedenidze/Reuters)

TBILISI, Georgia — As demonstrations in this ex-Soviet state approach their fourth week, the question arises: Are they a sign of strength or weakness in Georgia’s democracy? The answer — which holds implications for Moldova, which was also recently rocked by anti-government protests — is mixed. 

On the positive side, the sight of tens of thousands of former Soviets gathered to voice their demands in a reasonably organized manner, and with the expectation that their actions can bring about change, is heartening. 

Throughout most of the ex-Soviet sphere, with the exception perhaps of the Baltics and Ukraine, public protests are either suppressed, or looked upon as a futile endeavor. Cynicism and oppression reigns supreme in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Russia. Bully then to those Moldovans and Georgians for simply believing (still) in the democratic process. 

Georgia’s opposition says that the country is turning into a dictatorship and police state. This is a gross exaggeration. Their presence on the streets belies their own argument. The country remains a relatively open society, where issues are hotly debated among friends with the conviction that these discussions matter. Conversely, in Baku and Almaty people talk, but they know this is an empty exercise — they can chatter all they want, but decisions are made elsewhere (and usually by one person). 

On a recent Friday night in Tbilisi, a group of journalists, government advisers and political types were gathered at an upscale French restaurant. Sometime after midnight, President Mikheil Saakashvili walked in and took his place at the table. He was relaxed and jovial and seemed genuinely to welcome the conversation, sitting until the early hours of the morning. 

“Can you imagine any other leader doing this — Putin, for example?” asked one of the advisers. Although the president’s arrival seemed to have been orchestrated in part to elicit exactly this reaction, and to show how relaxed he was after demonstrators earlier in the day virtually called for his head, the adviser had a point. It is hard to imagine a leader of a similarly sized state — Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, say — trying this maneuver, or enjoying it so much. But this is a testament as much to the openness and closeness of Georgian political society, where everyone calls the president “Misha,” as to the strength of its democracy.