Review of the Georgian protest

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Almost three weeks have elapsed since anti-Russian and anti-government protests took place in Georgia, a southern Caucasian nation that gained independence from the former Soviet Union. The protests broke out as Georgian anti-Russian sentiment exploded on June 20 after a Russian lawmaker, Sergei Gavrilov, spoke in Russian in Georgia’s parliament. Georgians have been pushing to keep Russia out of local politics. On the following days, Georgia’s prosecutors put Nika Melia, the leader of the opposition United National Movement (UNM), under house arrest on charges of leading “massive violence.” The investigation is still ongoing. UNM was founded by former President Mikheil Saakashvili. Prosecutors also asked parliament to strip Melia of his immunity.

At that time, about 200 people were injured in the physical clash between (should be no word) police and protesters, and some were seriously injured by police rubber bullets. The protesters’ demands have gradually expanded not only to “anti-Russia” but also to include the resignation of the interior minister held responsible for the hardline crackdown as well as the overhaul of the electoral system. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the ruling party, announced on June 24 that he would accept the demands of the protesters and push for an overhaul of the election system. Supporters of the opposition camp cheered Ivanishvili’s announcement, and after an opposition leader was arrested within a day, thousands gathered again to protest in front of the parliament building. About 20 opposition parties also issued a statement, criticizing the arrest of Melia as political persecution and the start of persecution against the opposition camp. Khatuna Chapichadze, a professor at Georgian Technical University, told AsiaN that “the government used special forces to respond hard to the protests.” “The current government’s overall response to the recent protests is undoubtedly more democratic. It’s a side of a more responsible government,” Khatuna said in the interview.

 

One of the reasons that the protest took place is that a Russian lawmaker delivered a speech in Russian in the Georgian Assembly. Is there something else?

Russian lawmaker and member of the Russia Communist Party Sergei Gavrilov was in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, along with the other members of the Russian delegation attending the session of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO) [a body set up by the Greek parliament in 1993 to foster relationships between Christian Orthodox lawmakers] that opened in the Georgian Parliament building on June 20. Gavrilov has been accused by the Georgian opposition of participating in the Abkhazian War in the 1990s against Georgia and he is known for recognizing the independence of two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, [where Russian troops are now garrisoned]. This, if proven, could be an infringement of Georgia’s law about the occupation by Russia. Gavrilov used the chair of Georgian Parliament Speaker to address the session in Russian with the Russian flag next to him. Such an [offensive] attitude prompted the enraged parliament opposition to protest and its lawmakers forced the whole Russian delegation to leave the parliament building immediately and to leave Georgia. The parliamentary session was suspended as soon as the incident happened. Many Georgians, including civil activists and young people, gathered in front of the parliament and announced a general meeting on June 20.

The opposition parties, with the special mobilization of the former government party – United National Movement (UNM), along with its allies, European Georgia, Republican Party, and others, led the demonstrations. One of the major demands made at the general meeting was to demand the resignation of Irakli Kobakhidze as Speaker. The meeting was peaceful for around two hours until approximately 10 pm. Some of the protesters, led by UNM leaders, including MP Nika Melia, tried to storm the parliament building, resulting in clashes with the police. At around midnight, special forces started to use tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disperse the demonstration. However, the protesters kept coming returning to the parliament building, hurling objects and resisting special forces and the police. According to official data provided by the Ministry of Health on the June 20-21 incidents, around 240 people, including 80 policemen and 34 journalists, were injured. Two people lost their eyesight due to the rubber bullets and three other people were kept in the intensive care unit of the clinic. The police detained 305 people.

 

You said that the opposition, such as UNM, was more violent when they had the power twice before. Could you tell us more about it?

UNM party, while in power after the Rose Revolution from 2003 to 2012, led in fact an authoritarian regime, especially during the second term of President Mikheil Saakashvili [who was president from 25 January 2004 to 17 November 2013.] Free speech, free association, free and friendly business environment were all totally restricted, despite well-known reforms initiated personally by the President. Among the many victims of the regime, which the Georgian public broadly calls “Nazi Regime”, there were political prisoners, businessmen racketed directly by the government and ordinary people who dared not to share the ruling party’s views. People’s collective memories are closely associated with the violent breakups of peaceful demonstrations on November 7, 2007, and on May 26, 2011 (Georgia’s Independence Day).

In both cases the government used disproportionate force, directly killing people on the main avenue and other streets of Tbilisi. In addition, one of the major TV stations, TV Imedi, was raided by the special forces. Any attempts of civil protest proved to be not possible as people feared more repressions. In fact, no real responsibility was assumed by government officials and decision-makers. The only compromise from the government was the announcement of early elections and a referendum. Saakashvili temporarily resigned, but consequently could win presidential elections as a result of apparent, but never disputed fraud. The responses about current events from the current government are undoubtedly more democratic and indicate the increased level of their accountability.

In fact, the day after the turbulent night of the protests, both Speaker Kobakhidze as well as Zakaria Kutsnashvili, organizer of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, resigned. Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream (GD), the ruling party, announced proportional parliamentary elections with no zero bar for the next parliamentary elections in 2020. The non-application of a threshold for parties will ensure maximum representation even of small political parties and groups in the legislature. However, and like in similar cases before, the interior minister has not resigned in the aftermath of the attack on protesters. It is quite significant that the protesters in the latest developments keep calling for Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia to resign. He is perceived as one of the strongest leaders in the current cabinet of ministers.

 

Why does the public want the preliminary proportional system election and the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia?

Even though I partly addressed this question, I should explain first of all the nature of the third main demand of the protesters, which was proportional to parliamentary elections. The government has already agreed to it and proposed even more bonuses: No threshold for parties will be applied during the 2020 elections, which is slightly different from the last and recent constitutional amendments, initiated by the ruling party and, ironically, by Kobakhidze. In fact, the idea [of easing possibilities for political parties in elections] has been floated earlier, but the amendments considered a different time frame, with changes starting in 2024 with a 5% threshold for a political party to gain mandates in parliament. However, now, the decisions that the government has made in favor of the changes are coming into effect not starting from 2024, but earlier – 2020 parliamentary elections and with no threshold instead of 5% for parties to enter the parliament. Closer to the point; we had a problem with the mixed election model, combining majoritarian and proportional systems, based on the constitution, adopted in 1995.

In fact, the ruling party traditionally was taking advantage of adding majoritarian mandates to their proportional ones, using their party influence in regions and almost always guaranteeing their candidates to win there. Thus, the initial idea of majoritarianism of community leaders, mainly nonpartisan theoretically, supported genuinely by their local public, being able to get enough votes to be represented in the legislature and solve the concrete community problems there, as well as lobby for their regions and/or districts in Tbilisi, proved to be critical and unrealistic. Parties, predominantly the ruling ones, have never allowed any space for such a balance. That’s why the idea of the proportional-election system has emerged, and it has been widely promoted, especially in recent years. Regarding the public demand to have Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia resign, the people, mainly the opposition, wish to make him responsible for the forceful breakup of the 20-21 June demonstration. It is significant to note Gakharia is a strong leader, competitive and competent in the current government. Therefore, the opposition wants to get rid of him in pragmatic terms.

 

When it comes to safety, are the protests happening safely without harming citizens?

During the week when the protests are taking place, if we don’t consider the night of June 20 – 21, protesters seemed to be secure. Very importantly, many protesters, including students, following the demonstration breakup, apparently attempted to forcibly enter the parliament, led by UNM leader Nika Melia. On June 26, the parliament voted to strip him of his parliamentary immunity and agreed to his detention. The lawmakers voted in response to the appeal by the prosecutor’s office to suspend his immunity to allow the start of legal action against him. Protesters are now trying to distance themselves from any parties and to push for much more nonpartisan and civil protest, which makes them less usable by politicians, and thus not become targeted by the police. All the people detained by the police on June 21 are free now.

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