TBILISI, Georgia — On a warm night last week, a crowd gathered in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi in front of the glass facade of the Philharmonia building. The crowd members were young, oppositional, and angry; disorganized but peaceful. A police car approached and was met with a cacophony of whistles, more mocking than aggressive.
The crowd had been drawn onto the street by the release of shocking videos by two opposition television channels showing systematic abuse in one of Tbilisi's prisons. One clip, showing the rape of a male prisoner with a broom, was especially shocking for a socially conservative society. Reports of the terrible conditions in the country's prisons had flickered through Georgian households for years. Georgia now has the highest prison population per capita in Europe, with 24,000 inmates, four times as many as when Mikheil Saakashvili was first elected president in 2004. But Georgia's leaders had ignored reports of prison brutality, trumpeting instead police reform and their successful "zero tolerance on crime" policy.
Now they were being proved spectacularly wrong and at the worst possible moment, just 13 days before crucial parliamentary elections on Oct. 1.
Saakashvili reacted quickly to contain the damage. The powerful 31-year-old interior minister, Bacho Akhalaia -- who had been in office only two months -- resigned. The ombudsman who had long been registering unheeded alarm about prison conditions was made the new prisons minister. But the president then muddied his message. Clearly someone close to the opposition had chosen to release the videos at this moment to embarrass the government, but Saakashvili lashed out with an improbable line of attack that harked back to the August 2008 war, telling a public meeting that the revelations were part of a Moscow-orchestrated "conspiracy" against Georgia, ahead of the election, with the goal of forcing Georgia "back into Russia's imperial space."
The problem for the president is that when he said he was "shocked" and "very angry" and knew nothing about the state of his prisons, few believed him. The country's highly punitive criminal-justice system was built by a group of men who now hold the jobs of prime minister, justice minister and defense minister. The general state of Georgia's prisons, if not the graphic details, was an open secret. Most residents of Tbilisi know someone -- a neighbor or a cousin -- who has been in prison, often for a relatively small offense, such as marijuana possession or theft. A few months ago, I heard a terrible account of life inside Georgia's prisons from a businessman named Lasha Shanidze who had ended up on the wrong side of the government in a complex financial dispute and is now a fugitive in the United States. Shanidze described a regime in which he and his fellow inmates were forced to eat rotten food and subjected to nighttime beatings.
One Tbilisi taxi driver told me that his neighbor had done a four-year sentence at age 18 for theft and that he had spent three months of it in the Gldani prison, the facility at the center of the scandal. "He told me that three months there was so awful it was like 10 years of his life," my driver said. "The guards would burst into the cells at 2 or 3 in the morning and beat people randomly."
Even before the scandal, the governing party was facing a strong challenge. Now its hopes of maintaining its monopoly of power are under much greater threat.
The Oct. 1 election marks a turning point for Georgia. Besides being a contest for Parliament, it is also a shadow leadership election. In 2013, after Saakashvili's second and final term as president expires, a new constitution will take effect, transferring key powers from the president to the prime minister, who will be elected by Parliament. Whoever controls the new Parliament will get to elect the prime minister next year.
Greek scholar Ilia Roubanis has called Georgian politics "pluralistic feudalism," a competition between a patriarchal leader who enjoys uncontested rule over the country and a leader of the opposition bidding to unseat him and acquire the same. The current contest fits that description. Put simply, it is a clash of two narratives about Georgia set out by two big personalities: Saakashvili, and his main challenger, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Saakashvili has been personally leading the election campaign for the governing party, the United National Movement, even though he is not running for Parliament himself. His main message is that, like the medieval Georgian king David the Builder, he has been building a new nation and he and his team deserve to be allowed to finish the job.
In that spirit, on Sept. 16, Saakashvili formally reopened a famous medieval landmark, the 11th-century Bagrati Cathedral (rebuilt in controversial fashion, overriding the objections of UNESCO that the construction work interfered with the original medieval fabric of the church). On Sept. 27, the new airport, named after David the Builder, in Georgia's second-largest city, Kutaisi, is due to open. A new glass-and-steel sci-fi Parliament building in Kutaisi is also scheduled to be completed in October.