Georgia, Thailand and the curse of lunch with the FT

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I interrupt my holiday briefly to note that the last two national leaders that I have interviewed for lunch with the FT – Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister of Thailand and Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia – are facing similar sorts of problems this weekend: mass demonstrations in Thailand and Georgia, aimed at levering them out of power. The abandonment of the Asean summit in the Thai resort of Pattaya – after the breakdown of security there – is a deep humiliation for the Thai government

 I interviewed Abhisit last January and Saakashvili about a year ago. Could I have inadvertently put a curse on them both?

Then again, there are more profound connections between the two crises. Both leaders are western-educated economic liberals who have been hailed abroad as champions of democracy. But both are now having their democratic credentials seriously questioned at home, and are threatened by popular uprisings. Both are desperate to stop the demonstrations against them, but also to avoid a violent crackdown.

There are big differences, as well, naturally: Georgia was invaded by Russia last August. It is a caught in a power-play between Russia and the US, in a way that simply doesn’t apply in Thailand. In Thailand, there is an urban-rural divide and a threat of military intervention that does not apply in Georgia. Also, on the most basic level, Thailand is a much bigger country and economy than Georgia – although Georgia gets more attention in Washington.

So what are the prospect for these two leaders? There must be a strong chance that both will be out of power by the end of the year. It is ominous for Abhisit that the demonstrations by the “red-shirt” supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra seem to be gaining in strength, rather than fading away. The loss of face involved in the abandonment of the Asean summit will be very damaging, and may feed the impression that the new Thai PM is not tough enough for the challenges he faces. It may be that Abhisit will have to step down, at least for a while, to allow either for new elections or some new political compromise.

As for Saakashvili, he is determined to cling on. But I think his western backers are less enthusiastic than they once were, the Russians are determined to get him out – and the Georgian public are disillusioned after the war, and battered by the economic crisis. It doesn’t look good.

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