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Opposition groups take to the street

Friday, April 17, 2009 | 12:25 p.m. CDT

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism: All-out violence rages in many parts of the world. Consider: the drug war in northern Mexico; fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan; ethnic conflicts in Rwanda, the Congo or Sudan. But there is a level below that in which opposition groups have taken to the streets to protest government actions. These protests have been met with government attempts to maintain control without using excessive force although there have been injuries and some deaths in recent weeks. Three of those places are Moldova and Georgia, both former republics of the Soviet Union, and Thailand, an important ally of the United States in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, “red shirts” representing the poor rural areas of the country are protesting the ouster and exile of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was more favorable to them than the new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. In Moldova, mostly young demonstrators have been in the streets protesting the re-election of the Communist Party. They say the election count was rigged. A recount is under way, but outside observers say the original results were fair. In Georgia, the blush is off the flower of the so-called “Rose Revolution” that brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power five years ago. After a humiliating war with Russia last summer and a fall in the economy, some demonstrators have been pushing for his ouster. Let’s start in Bangkok; there has been a crisis going on for three years, but once again it is critical. Is it possible that the government will fall or that the demonstrations will get worse?

Martin Petty, correspondent, Reuters, Bangkok, Thailand: It is a wait-and-see game. There is peace in Bangkok now after violent clashes on Monday and the cancellation of a summit of Asian leaders — where at least 16 leaders had to leave, many evacuated by helicopter. It is a huge embarrassment for the country at a time when economic troubles are high. The red shirts feel democracy hasn’t worked and hasn’t done them justice. Although the government celebrates a victory in managing to break up the protests and restore harmony, who knows if they are going to regroup and come back.

Loory: Thaksin has been exiled and his passport revoked. If he comes back to Thailand, what happens?

Petty: We discovered the government of Nicaragua granted him a special passport. We’re not sure how far he can travel with it. If he does return to Thailand, he will be arrested at the airport. He wants amnesty, but this government doesn’t want to negotiate with him.

Loory: What are the present prime minister’s credentials?

Petty: He was born in England and is an Oxford-educated economist. He is fluent in two languages and very popular with foreign governments and investors. Thaksin had the rural masses; they adored him and delivered two landslide victories for him. Abhisit is the choice of the rich urban elite and the military. Abhisit only came to power after a series of defections with the previous people’s power party, which was formed by Thaksin’s allies. The problem for Abhisit is that the rural masses don’t back him, and he probably won’t deliver another victory for his party in an election.

Loory: There is a division in Moldova, also, between those who are somewhat loyal to Russia and the people of Romanian background. The divide is being expressed in terms of young versus old, is that what is happening?

Corina Cepoi, program director, School of Advanced Journalism, Chisinau, Moldova: The division is more generational than ethnic. Younger populations voted mostly for democratic liberal parties and the elder generation voted for Communists. The Communists won a majority, but the opposition believes the vote is rigged. They are now checking voter lists. Suddenly, we had 200,000 more people than a couple of weeks ago.

Loory: Why is it Western European observer organizations are saying that the election looked pretty clean?

Cepoi: The problem is they monitor superficially, only a few days before and after an election, not more. They saw that people were free to come up, put their ballots in and leave. But they don’t look into the lists. I had three more people living in my house I didn’t know about, and many other people had a similar experience. There were dead people who suddenly appeared on the list and people who long ago left Moldova. The opposition is saying that probably 10 percent of the votes were rigged.

Loory: Romania has a great interest in this. How is this story being played in your country?

Mihaela Rodina, correspondent, Agence France-Presse, Bucharest, Romania: Moldova was once part of Romania, and about two-thirds of its population speaks Romanian. Romanian people followed the elections closely and were quite surprised about the riots that took place. They were also concerned about the repression that followed when thousands of people were detained and some journalists were expelled. The authorities were in a delicate position because they wanted to intervene, but relations with Moldovan authorities have been tense over the past few years.

Loory: Why is it that Mikhail Saakashvili, who was a great hero in Georgia just a few years ago, is now on the outs with the people?

Giorgi Lomsadze, reporter and analyst, EurasiaNet.org, Tbilisi, Georgia: Since Georgia gained independence 20 years ago, every government has come to power through an uprising, and expectations are always high. Saakashvili came on this wave of democratization, but changes didn’t happen over time. The huge popular support gained in his first election gave him and his government the wrong ideas about how far public support would go.

Loory: Does the U.S. have interest in any of these countries, and is it doing anything to deal with the problems there?

Josh Keating, deputy web editor, Foreignpolicy.com, Washington, D.C.: Certainly. Georgia was a strong ally of the U.S. during the Bush administration and at one point had the third most troops in Iraq. There is understandable worry among Georgian officials that it has been downgraded as a priority with the new administration, which has stressed improving relations with Russia.

Loory: Is the American Embassy in Moldova still as active as it was a few years ago?

Cepoi: Yes, but we are worried that the U.S. interest in having better relations with Russia might harm the positive influence that the U.S. might have. Russia is trying to increase influence in the region. There are allegations that Russia was involved in the protests that started to turn violent in Chisinau. There is also supposition about the influence of Romania in current events, but they were not confirmed.

Loory: What is the feeling in Washington about whether or not Russia is interfering in countries like Moldova, Georgia and the Central Asian republics?

Keating: There definitely is a sense that is going on. It is widely suspected that Russian pressure resulted in Kyrgyzstan closing the U.S. air base supplying the Afghanistan mission. I think this topic is being avoided now, as issues like missile defense are discussed between the U.S. and Russia.

Loory: Is the U.S. attempting to influence the political situation in Thailand?

Petty: It is highly unlikely. Thailand is the U.S.’s biggest ally in Southeast Asia and they are not happy about the instability there.

Loory: Tell us about the American presence in Georgia and what it is doing, presumably, to help President Saakashvili?

Lomsadze: American military defense has arrived repeatedly in Georgia. They have tried to help retrain and re-equip the Georgian army, as it suffered serious losses after the war with Russia. The Americans are helping to change the whole command line of the army, which is annoying Russia again and becoming a serious problem.

Loory: These three countries have protested problems in a less violent way, but the unrest is great and still dangerous.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo and Melissa Ulbricht. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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