Jewish leaders lobby in Tbilisi

An anti-government protester in Tbilisi finds his perch in the branches of a tree in a mass demonstration near Georgia's Parliament in February 2008. (Matt Siegel)

An anti-government protester in Tbilisi finds his perch in the branches of a tree in a mass demonstration near Georgia’s Parliament in February 2008. (Matt Siegel)

TBILISI, Georgia (JTA) – Inside the posh Marriott hotel on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, foreigners in neatly tailored suits and “new Georgians” dressed elegantly sit sipping their espressos and munching on $35 steak sandwiches. The music is light Euro-pop and the mood is easy.

But out in the street, it’s a different world.

Thousands of protesters stand shoulder to shoulder under swaying red-and-white flags, chanting slogans against Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who won a second term in January in elections protesters say was rigged.

Last November, police clashed violently with masses during an anti-government demonstration, but this week’s protest outside Parliament was largely free of violence. News reports estimated the crowds at 20,000.

“We feel like strangers in our own country,” says Larma, 58, a teacher who declines to give her last name out of fear of government reprisal.

Protest, it seems, is fast becoming the Georgian national pastime.

The decision of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to send their annual overseas mission to Tbilisi, despite the protests and the disputed election, is an indication of the growing importance Washington and Jerusalem attribute to this small country wedged between Russia and Turkey on the Black Sea coast.

Georgia, a state of less than 5 million, might seem an unlikely player on the stage of great-power politics. But on issues of importance to Israel and the United States, Georgia occupies a key position, and it is being courted aggressively.

No stranger to controversy, the Presidents Conference often uses its annual overseas mission, which is always combined with a trip to Israel, to highlight points of concern with local governments. This time is no different. But in Georgia the conference also finds itself in the middle of a country actively exorcising its own demons in the streets.

Over the course of several days here, leaders of the Presidents Conference, which represents more than 50 major U.S. Jewish groups, are holding high-level talks with the Georgian government, including private meetings with Saakashvili and Prime Minister Vladimir Gurgenidze.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, said the decision to hold the meeting in Georgia was based on its “demonstrably pro-Israel record” and tremendous geo-political importance. He also suggested that the choice of Georgia for this mission – which many governments view as a sign of Western approval and key to Israeli and American Jewish investment – is part of a Western effort to show support for Tbilisi.

“It’s not just because we want something,” Hoenlein told JTA. “Sometimes it’s about saying thanks for doing the right thing.”

As Europe has become increasingly frustrated with Russia’s confrontational foreign policy, it has scrambled to find alternate routes to bring Central Asian gas to its markets, thus depriving Russia of a key bargaining chip. Georgia, squeezed between the Black Sea and Azerbaijan’s massive reserves, has promoted itself as that alternative.

Georgia’s attempts to move closer to the West – it has applied for NATO membership and is a member of the World Trade Organization – have heightened tensions with Russia, its traditional patron. In October 2006, these tensions boiled over when four Russian servicemen were expelled from the country for spying. That prompted a Russian embargo, with 70 percent of the country’s export market disappearing overnight.

The effects of the embargo, while painful, have also benefited Georgia, Foreign Minister David Bakradze says.

“When Russia introduced this trade embargo against Georgia, you know, in the long-run perspective, quite to the contrary, it helped us,” he said, “because it helped us to reorient to Western markets and to other markets more aggressively.”

Another key issue on the Presidents Conference’s agenda this week is Iran. Less than 200 miles from Iran, Georgia has been suggested as a possible staging point for U.S. military action against the Islamic Republic. Also, as Georgia’s economy has flourished under market reforms, it has become a key source of foreign investment in the oil-rich Caspian region, giving the country increasing economic and diplomatic leverage.

“Obviously, we’re very interested in Iran – whether they’d support sanctions and what their position is on the isolation of Iran,” Hoenlein said just before a closed-door meeting with the president.

A source who attended the meeting said that Saakashvili had said of Iran and Israel that Georgia’s government had “made a choice to stand by our friends, that values are more important than pragmatism.” The remarks were understood as positive for Israel, and those present at the meeting said they were impressed by Saakashvili, who came to power in a bloodless revolution in 2003.

Despite all the positive assessments of Georgia’s economic and political development inside the hotel and the halls of government, the reality outside stood in stark contrast.

Fiery rhetoric by protesters and opposition leaders who accuse the government of selling off public property at bargain-basement prices, stealing January’s elections and holding political prisoners are at odds with the rosy assessments presented to the delegation by both Georgian and U.S. officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, John Tefft.

On Thursday, many members of the Presidents Conference were surprised to learn that a massive opposition protest had been called for near their hotel.

Opposition leader Arkadi “Badri” Patarkatsishvili had died the day before in England, and though British investigators called it a natural death, accusations by the opposition of foul play were broadcast widely by Georgian media.

“I’m not worried about our safety; I’m worried how they’re going to schlep us all around,” Peggy Robin, a delegate from the NCSJ, which advocates for Jews in former Soviet republics, said Thursday morning.

While the opposition commands little respect in the streets – seen here more as a vehicle for the large mass of disaffected Georgians to register their general discontent – its staying power absent any charismatic leader or popular platform reflects the high level of dissatisfaction with Saakashvili’s government.

Hoenlein vigorously defended the decision to hold the conference in Georgia. He pointed to a long list of conflicted countries the missions have visited as illustrative of the conference’s agenda, and, like many others here, described the protests as a sign of a strengthening democracy.

“I’m not looking to grandstand; I’m not doing it for the press. We’re doing it for results,” he said. “We want this to build and to serve long-term interests in the region – U.S. interests and Israeli interests here.”

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