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Georgian President Blasted Over Monument's Demolition

Two people were killed in the demolition of the Glory Memorial in Kutaisi.
Two people were killed in the demolition of the Glory Memorial in Kutaisi.
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By Nino Gachava
KUTAISI, Georgia -- It wasn't the birthday celebration Mikheil Saakashvili was hoping for.

Hundreds of angry demonstrators gathered in the western Georgian city of Kutaisi today to protest the president's decision to destroy a Soviet-era war monument in a blast that accidentally killed a local woman and her 8-year-old daughter on December 19.

Sozar Subari, the former ombudsman and a member of the opposition Alliance for Georgia, laid the blame for the incident squarely on the president's shoulders.

"These two deaths are the result of one person's whim, and Georgia is becoming a victim of this person's whims," Subari said. "It was the whim of this person to start the war last year, and then lose it in a shameful manner."

Georgian officials had originally scheduled the demolition of the Glory Memorial to coincide with the president's 42nd birthday today.

Saakashvili had hoped to build a new parliament building on the site as part of a decentralization drive to help develop cities outside the capital, Tbilisi.

'Historical Vandalism'


The initiative was unpopular from the start. Even those who supported the idea of moving the parliament to Kutaisi saw the destruction of the monument as unnecessary and an affront to the 300,000 Georgians who died in World War II.

Opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili, who formerly served as foreign minister under Saakashvili, said the demolition showed blatant disregard for Georgia's wartime sacrifices.

Zurabishvili attacked the president as a "barbarian."
"This is a memorial to those people who fought for freedom against Nazism. Georgians and non-Georgians, Europeans and Jews who were killed in World War II," Zurabishvili said.

"And if we want to forget all this, then we are a nation of barbarians, with a barbarian president who can just call up from somewhere and give an order to detonate the explosives, so that no protests can interrupt."

Georgia's political opposition had originally scheduled today's rally with the aim of blocking the demolition. But then the 46-meter-high arch was suddenly destroyed two days ahead of schedule, in an apparent attempt to avoid public scrutiny.

And after Eka Tsutskhvashvili-Jincharadze and her daughter Nino were killed by flying chunks of concrete caused by the blast, the gathering evolved into a mournful and angry demonstration against the president. (This video -- warning: graphic! -- shot on a mobile phone appears to show the tragic aftermath of the blast.) 

Some Kutaisi residents said demolition crews attempted to warn local residents to take precautions during the blast. But the warnings failed to protect the mother and daughter from the force of the shattering concrete, which pummeled nearby houses and killed them as they were seeking shelter in their yard.

One Kutaisi woman said the blast crew failed to anticipate how powerful the explosion would be, pointing to the "huge distance" between the monument and neighboring homes.

"And this is our history. We have to protect our past -- only then, can we start to build something new," she added. "Why did we need this? Even without the deaths, it was the wrong thing to do. To me, it's an act of vandalism."

Personal Grudge?


Saakashvili, who was in Copenhagen at the time of the blast, flew back to Georgia the same day and has responded to the crisis by firing the regional governor and ordering the chief of the privately owned detonation crew to be detained.

A presidential spokeswoman said Saakashvili was "shocked by the tragedy" and promised that the state would provide aid and moral support to the victims' families.

But the purge has not deflected attention from what many see as yet another example of Saakashvili's arrogance and personal caprice going awry.

The president has made no secret of his dislike for the memorial's creator, 82-year-old sculptor Merab
Sculptor Merab Berdzenishvili
Berdzenishvili, who has been quietly critical of Saakashvili's regime.

A Berdzenishvili sculpture of King David the Builder -- Georgia's most revered historical figure -- was moved from central Tbilisi to an outlying street several years ago by presidential order.

Many people saw the parliament project as a pretext to tear down the Glory Memorial, saying there was ample land to build the government building without removing the sculpture.

Berdzenishvili said he was heartened by the outpouring of public anger over the destruction of the Glory Memorial, which featured an armed horseman stabbing a German soldier with a spear -- an image reminiscent of St. George slaying the dragon.

"The Kutaisi memorial is not just a memorial for the fallen. For me, it was also an opportunity to express my thoughts and feelings about the war," Berdzenishvili said.

"It's an antiwar statement. It's a very complex composition, with a lot of interwoven motifs. Every epoch has its dragons. And for the 20th century, it was fascism."

Kremlin Criticism

Russia was quick to criticize the memorial's destruction, with the Russian Foreign Ministry saying in a statement that the Georgian authorities had "committed an act of public vandalism, insulting the feelings of any civilized person."

"This sacrilege...is yet another disgraceful act by the current leadership in Tbilisi in its maniacal drive to erase the historical memories of its own people," the statement said.

The controversy over the memorial and the fatal blast has almost completely overshadowed Saakashvili's original plan to bring the parliament to Kutaisi, an initiative the president hoped would bring greater prominence to the economically depressed city.

One Kutaisi man argued that the parliament project could have proceeded without the loss of history and human lives.

"I think they should have left it as it is. And as for the parliament, I think it could be beneficial for Kutaisi, but this shouldn't have happened," he said.

"I have no explanation for how this happened."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent Giorgi Gvakharia contributed to this report.
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by: Peter from: Post
December 21, 2009 20:50
Not surprising. Georgians were most anti-semitic of all former soviet people.

by: Henry from: Seattle USA
December 21, 2009 21:07
What a waste, both of innocent lives and fine architechture. And seemingly for nothing. It appeared to be a handsome memorial to World War war dead. I can't image that Kutaisi is such a densely populated metropolis that there was room nowhere else for the proposed parliament building.

by: Alec from: Los Angeles
December 21, 2009 22:21
I wish US newspapers (NY Times, LA Times) would publish this article. They still do not allow much negative info about Saakashvilli and his criminal regime. The monument, which was destroyed, had no single "Soviet" or "Communist" reference. It was made by a Gergian in with Gergian cultural references and dedicated to Geargian fallen in the WWII who were fighting together with Russians against Nazis.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
December 22, 2009 05:17
Saakashvili have to consult more with his own country.
Saakashvili have restore national unity with opposition in vew of eternal threat to Georgia and to the whole Ivero-Caucasian group of nations from Russia.
What will happen during the next president, if Georgia would be dis-united before another Russian invasion?

The blowing-up of the monument was one of those things I would expect from the Russian provocateurs whose telepaths are working on Saakashvili and all non-Russians, even on me here in Los Angeles, making us overlook mistakes that Russia than use.
I also would expect pressure from the Germans that to a degree controll NATO and USA leadership and sentiments - viewing depiction of German soldier as symbol of the evil dragon stabbed by sybmol of Saint Gorge would be quite unpleasant to Germans.
I also would expect Berdzenishvili be so direct in the stile of angry victimized during WW2 Humanity, that looks today somewhat bombastic.
It should be investigated why it happened.

I believe both, the Parliament building and memorial, must be build.
Someone, maybe Berdzenishvili, must be allowed to build another monument to WW2 Georgian participation, but not in bombastic stile -
if he wants use the same motive, why not use sybmol of Saint George and evil Dragon directly as victory over Nazism, rather than as a relative of Berdzinashvili stabing relative of Merkel and Germans from NATO leadership?

If it was evil Russia, it is exactly what it would do to split CIS nations - be slaves, dying at the feets of Russians, or blow monuments of victory over nazism.
Are wee really so stupid to let Russia to devide us and to eat us too?

Konstantin.

by: Katy from: London
December 22, 2009 11:10
A mother and a child were killed by stray debris from the explosion. This is a terrible tragedy that could and should have been avoided if due caution was exercised. May the souls of the little angel and her mother rest in peace. Time for some restrain and reflection, isn’t it? Instead it seems this tragedy has been exploited in a manner I find morally repulsive.

The opposition should have refrained from turning this tragic accident into another anti-Saakashvili demarche. But they just can’t resist using any excuse in the world for their personal attacks against Saakashvili, can they?

Have they not noticed that their action coincides with the latest Russian diatribe? What right does Russia have to tell Georgia, a sovereign nation, that it has no right to destroy a monument , which is the same position Russia had previously taken in Estonia. Yet try and tell Russia what it can and can not do on its own territory and the hell will break out. This is particularly cynical, especially as Russia is responsible for many barbarities, including letting South Ossetian militias to burn down and bulldoze thousands of ancestral homes belonging to ordinary Georgians in South Ossetia, talk about the sacrilege!

Politics aside, I think (I am Georgian) many Soviet era monuments in Georgia are hideous. That said, their removal should not be done hastily. Saakashvili should know better, if a removal of a monument is going to provoke controversy among Georgians, may be it’s not worth it, some things perhaps are better left alone, for now, at least.

by: Andrew from: Auckland
December 22, 2009 11:38
@ Peter - BS, Georgia had the largest percentage of population being Jewish in the Russian and soviet empires, and still does. Georgian Jews have lived in Georgia since biblical times. The most rabid anti semite population in the USSR was the Russians, and the Russians are still massively anti Jewish today. Hitler would be impressed with modern Russian racism.

@ Alec - Actually the monument had plenty of references to communism. Obviously you have not seen it recently. All the Soviet stars were a bit of a give away. The Georgian sculpturer is still a rabid pro russian traitor and communist sympathiser. There was very little "culturaly Georgian" about it. It was similar to dozens of repulsive soviet "art works" all over the USSR.

@ Henry - Fine architecture, now you are just being stupid. It was an ugly eyesore, a historical ugly eyesore however.


by: Sergey from: Chicago, Illinois, USA
December 22, 2009 12:05
Even though I condemn Putin-Medvedev regime war against republic of Georgia in August, 2008, Saakashvili behavior is getting more and more bizzare and abhorrent. To blow up beautiful monument that commemorates YOUR OWN 300,000 COUNTRYMEN DEAD IN WORLD WAR II FIGHTING NAZIS and have no Soviet symbols on it--it is simply beyond belief. To blow up monument by incompetent workers that resulted in MOTHER AND DAUGHTER DEATH is simply abhorrent. I think Saakashvili really need to see both doctor and priest. Real psychopath.

by: Sergey from: Chicago, Illinois, USA
December 22, 2009 12:12
"if he wants use the same motive, why not use sybmol of Saint George and evil Dragon directly as victory over Nazism, rather than as a relative of Berdzinashvili stabing relative of Merkel and Germans from NATO leadership?"

Konstantin, I am sorry, but I think you really not sure what you are saying. In WWII, Germany was evil totalitarian agressor hell bent on the worldwide domination and extermination of Jews, enslavement and partial destruction of "non-Aryans" and so on. Therefore, it is perfectly appropriate for monument to have Saint George stabbing Nazi Germany soldier who was fighting for evil Nazi regime. I don't think it should offend any decent German today. Germany itself condemned its Nazi past.

by: Sergey from: Chicago, Illinois, USA
December 22, 2009 13:52
" Alec - Actually the monument had plenty of references to communism. Obviously you have not seen it recently. All the Soviet stars were a bit of a give away. The Georgian sculpturer is still a rabid pro russian traitor and communist sympathiser. There was very little "culturaly Georgian" about it. It was similar to dozens of repulsive soviet "art works" all over the USSR."

Andrew, allow me to add my 2 cents here. I was in London in 2000 and 2001 as a tourist, and I saw a few monuments to British soldiers who died during Crimean campaign in 1853-1856 war with Russian Empire. Some monuments were really pompous with giant figures of soldiers either marching or standing at attention, so I couldn't help but compare them to Soviet war monuments that I saw in then Soviet Ukraine (where I grew up) and Russia (where me and my parents traveled quite frequently in 1980's and early 1990's).

Monuments to fallen soldiers sometimes could be pompous and distasteful. However, to blow up memorial to your own dead countrymen (300,000 of them) and kill mother and child in process--is simply disgraceful and abhorrent. Fallen soldiers who died stopping terrible Nazi regime deserve respect, and I don't care if the architect was a communist sympathizer. He still built a monument to 300,000 people of republic of Georgia who died fighting Hitler's armies as part of the Soviet Military.

Even if there were communist references in monument, it was possible to remove them from monument without blowing the entire structure up and killing mom with daughter. I looked at picture of the monument and I find nothing distasteful about it if you look from the distance.

In other words, there is absolutely nothing to defend here about Saakashvili and incompetent and careless officials who actually blew the monument up killing and wounding bystanders and locals.

by: John from: London
December 22, 2009 16:14
Sadly this reminds me of the demolition of a building in Australia in Canberra that killed a 12 year old girl. Tragically the event was promoted by the government as a family day out spectacular. This occured in 1991 and I was amazed then that those carryin out the demolition didnt express concern despite the spectators being very far away. So it greatly concerns me nothing seemed learnt from that incident. So sadly worldwide these things happen from stupid decisions - unsurprisingly from Politicians.
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