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Georgia Protests: One Demonstration, With Many Interpretations

Thousands of opposition supporters rallied in Tbilisi on May 22, calling for the nonviolent ouster of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Thousands of opposition supporters rallied in Tbilisi on May 22, calling for the nonviolent ouster of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
By RFE/RL
TBILISI -- Protesters in Georgia have gathered for a fourth consecutive day of antigovernment demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Some 200 demonstrators camped out overnight outside the headquarters of the Georgian public television station, where they have erected tents near a makeshift stage decorated with posters reading "We are fighting for democracy" and "Misha must go."

The number of protesters has dwindled since the start of the protests on May 21. Then, thousands of protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Georgian public television station to accuse Saakashvili of Soviet-style tactics in his running of the South Caucasus country.

The round-the-clock protests  have been largely peaceful. But police on May 22 used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators after some protesters used metal bars to attack nearby cars.

Protesters said they were trying to help a friend who had been detained and was sitting in a police car. One woman was reportedly taken to the hospital as a result of her injuries.

The demonstrations -- the first of their kind in nearly two years -- are an attempt by the more radical branch of the Georgian opposition to assert itself on a political stage that Saakashvili has largely dominated for nearly eight years. (The more moderate Opposition 8 group, led by former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania, has distanced itself from the protests.)

'Revolutionary' End

Nino Burjanadze, Saakashvili's key ally in the 2003 Rose Revolution that led him to power, is now among those leading the crusade for a "revolutionary" end to his presidency, which she says has been characterized by creeping authoritarianism and neglect.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service on May 22, she said Saakashvili's stifling of the opposition made elections meaningless.

"Never in history has a nondemocratic and autocratic authority transferred power through elections. That has never happened," Burjanadze said. "As for the threat of instability, yesterday I remembered the words of a great American, John Kennedy. He said that any authority that makes peaceful revolution impossible will push for the revolution to be violent."

FLASH ANALYSIS -- Koba Liklikadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service looks at the ongoing Georgian protests:

Flash Analysis with Koba Liklikadzei
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May 23, 2011
Flash Analysis with Koba Liklikadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service


Burjanadze's People's Assembly opposition movement, which is behind the unfolding protests, has been joined by the Georgian Party, an opposition group led by several high-profile politicians, including former ombudsman Sozar Subari and millionaire Levan Gachechiladze.

The two groups have sparred in the past. But arriving at the protest on May 22, Gachechiladze shook Burjanadze's hand, hugged her warmly, and declared the country's future was more important than political rivalries.

"I, Levan Gachechiladze, am personally forgetting about everything for the sake of my motherland," he said, "and I would like to [greet] Mrs. Nino in front of you all."

Possible Trump Card

After joining the protests, the Georgian Party upped the ante, declaring a so-called Arab-style "Day of Rage" on May 25 and vowing Saakashvili would be ousted that day. They had also planned to introduce a possible trump card: Irakli Okruashvili, a former defense minister and onetime Saakashvili ally who fled the country in 2007 after a highly public falling out with the president, whom he accused of corruption and criminal intent.

Okruashvili, who was later was convicted in absentia of corruption charges, has been living in France, where he has political asylum. Earlier this week, he vowed to return to Georgia on May 25 -- the day Burjanadze and others have vowed to secure Saakashvili's ouster -- and "finish off this regime once and for all."

But on May 24 both he and the Georgian Party backtracked. As the protest numbers dwindled, Subari told local television the "Day of Rage" had been canceled. And Okruashvili reversed his decision to travel to Georgia, saying he did not feel Burjanadze's People's Assembly was the appropriate political partner for him and his allies.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has so far not commented on the demonstrations.

It is unclear what Okruashvili's motivations may have been for contemplating a return. Georgian Interior Ministry officials threatened to arrest him as soon as he enters the country. And it is not certain the once-popular Okruashvili still enjoys the public support he once did.

Early on, the People's Assembly appeared unamused by the stunt, with one of its leading members, chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili, telling RFE/RL's Georgian Service that any attempt by Okruashvili to join the protests would be "unacceptable."

"We have no connection with Okruashvili. When the Georgian Party came to us, we told them that if they knew anything about Okruashvili's plans to let us know," Gaprindashvili said. "We should know for 100 percent Okruashvili's precise plans before we make any decisions, because we are not going to have any relations with Okruashvili."

No Comment From Saakashvili

The government appears unfazed by the protests. Saakashvili, who came under heavy international criticism for his crackdown on unarmed demonstrators in November 2007, has made no comment on the current demonstrations or the calls for his imminent ouster and spent May 23 in Budapest meeting with his Hungarian counterpart, Pal Schmitt.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry has reiterated that the people gathered outside the public television building have the right to peacefully protest.

Russia, meanwhile, has turned an unrelenting eye on the Georgia protests. Newscasts on the main state-run channels have given broad coverage to the demonstrations, including activated tear-gas canisters and shots of protesters overcome by the smoke during the May 22 clashes.

Moscow's relations with Saakashvili have never been warm. Kremlin leaders have repeatedly sought to chip away at the authority of the Georgian leader, who has openly sought to move his country closer to the West and further from Russia's postimperial sphere of influence.

Opposition activists carrying sticks and shields clashed with police in Tbilisi on May 22, prompting officers to use tear gas and rubber bullets.

The 2008 Russia-Georgia war, which removed the separatist Abkhaz and South Ossetian regions from Georgian jurisdiction, was considered an attempt by the Kremlin to put a chokehold on Saakashvili's ambitions.

The loss of Georgia's breakaway territories was devastating to many Georgians and dealt a severe, but not fatal, political blow to Saakashvili. There is widespread speculation that Saakashvili might take the newly empowered prime minister's position when his final presidential term expires in 2013. (Russia's Vladimir Putin made a similar move in 2008, when his second term as president ended.)

The Specter Of Russia

Many opposition leaders -- including Burjanadze, who cultivates close ties with Russia -- have used the loss of the breakaway regions as a rallying cry in the attempt to build their own base of public support.

The specter of Russia looms large in Georgia, with many in both the opposition and the ruling party convinced that Kremlin operatives are determined to steer the course of Georgian politics.

Davit Darchiashvili, a lawmaker with Saakashvili's National Movement party, told RFE/RL he did not expect a major outbreak of violence at the protests. But at the same time, he said, it was reasonable to assume any unrest would ultimately be traced to Russia.

"There is no reason to think in terms of a large-scale threat. There is not any social, systemic, or mental reason," he said. "But we can't rule out that several hundred people have coordinated with Russia in different ways and are ready to take various kinds of steps. It will be unpleasant, but any state and its law enforcement bodies should be ready for something like that."

written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting from Jimsher Rekhviashvili, Nona Suvarian, Bidzina Ramischwili, Niko Nergadze, Nino Kharadze, and Nino Gelashvili in Prague and Tbilisi
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by: georgian
May 23, 2011 16:53
Burjanadze is creating tornado in the glass, with help of few underrated actors and well forgotten politicians from last century, and without help of other politicians. They just don't stand her. She knows that peaceful revolution will not work, so she armed her aggressive supporters with sticks hoping that government will interfere. looks like she will succeed.

by: eric d from: Idaho Falls ID USA
May 23, 2011 21:06
Speaking of many interpretations... Under the headlines "Tblisi Police Fire Tear Gas at Protestors!" The Moscow Times compares the Georgia Protests to the Days of Rage of Arab Spring & sees the Georgian opposition as Trans-Caucasian "freedom fighters" (or something?). But RFERL sees The Invisible Hand of Putin's Russia behind the Georgian opposition & suggests this Anti-Rose Revolution is just another attempt to seize those "breakaway republics" (South Ossetia, Abkhazia, etc.) like the one that set off the last Georgian War. So what's the real story? Sure, Saakashvilii's probably corrupt & inept & the Rose Revolution's spent its moral force. But Putin's Russia will stop at nothing (not even war) to establish military police rule over the North Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan, Balkaria, & Georgia, too) & stop asylum-seekers from reaching the "westernized" Georgia. Who do you believe? Maybe you "Georgians" could log in & let us "clueless" Westerners know what's what, huh?

by: Peter Lawson from: Ireland
May 23, 2011 23:34
Georgia is broke, poor and about to collapse. Russia will have to bail out Georgia as it had done in years past.
In Response

by: Rasto from: London
May 26, 2011 11:54
I would say Ireland will bancrupt sooner than Georgia..Definitelly sooner without EU and UK bailout and loans

by: Jimmy from: Tbilisi
May 25, 2011 12:23
Disregarding any supposed intent by either Russia or the Georgian leaders, Georgia is a poor country and has had a lot of problems, largely a result of the collapsed USSR. A lot of people are discontent because many people don't have jobs.

However, things in general are getting better here, it is by no means about to collapse. Before the recent war with Russia, whatever the cause, the country was on its way to economic recovery. If you compare Georgia to 10 years ago, the difference is amazing. But I reiterate, many people are discontent and there are problems.

Just to make myself clear, I am not Georgian and have lived here for a year.

by: Temo of Georgia from: Tbilisi
May 25, 2011 12:53
@Eric D
The most correct view would be the one stated by RFERL. If you are interested in the non biased version of the story by a regular Georgian guy, than well here it is. Eventhough I am not that much in the politics (pretty strange if you look at the political hysteria that they showed on the news), but all those people standing there at the demonstrations are in most cases paid to stand there and maybe 20% do actually believe what their leaders preach. Compared to the previous demonstartions the number of people has dwindled may be due to two reason 1st: People got bored of the demonstrations and useless promises of the pro-russian leaders to oust Saakashvili or 2nd: Things got better compared to the previous years and now people are not willing to stand there and waste time, cause most of them got jobs etc and etc. I think it is the mixture of both. I am not fond of my government, but have to admit that there political orientation is the most suitable at the moment, country needs stability and this government can give it, Georgia will not make through the second revolution, it will kill the country. I think Saakashvili is the best alternative and I'd rather see him as the president than someone directed and sponsiored by Kremlin.

@Peter Lawson
You do not know the history or you would not say so. Looking back at the 300 year of Russo-Georgian relations (well the first one was in the 11th century when their prince married our queen, however they had to oust the guy as he wanted to make a coup), Russian actions were directed to weaken its statehood starting from erasing its language and religion and taking its territorries (the nowdays Socha were the Olymic Games are to be held was a Georgian territory until 1921).
So what u call "bailing out" was really an invasion and annexation.

by: eric d from: idaho falls idaho USA
May 25, 2011 23:57
@ Temo from Tblisi

Thanks for the feedback. We clueless "Westerners" never know what's really happening in the Balkans & the Caucasus unless RFERL clues us in or some "natives" wise us up. Since the Georgian/Russian War set up static on the international channels & gave tjhe Russians an excuse for their territorial ambitions in the Caucasus, it's been difficult to tell who's "the government" (Sakaasvilli?) & who's "the opposition"( another"---vilii"?) & what side they're really on. (Georgian or Russian?) Of course, Russian attempts to annex Georgia & the Caucasus date way back. Before Stalin's deportations of Chechens & Ossetians, there were the 18th & 19th Century wars against "Circassians" & etc. immortalized in Tolstoy's "Prisoner of the Caucasus" & "Lermontov's Hero of Our Time." But, you see, US Westerners only get Caucasus history from Russians; & Stalin himself was a Georgian (Iosip Dujashvillii!) who turned Russian! So who do you believe? Anyway, I'd rather believe you, Temo, than The Moscow Times. Thanks for the scoop! And I hope Georgia stays Georgian & doesn;t give in to "New Russian"imperialism! (Or whatever you'd call it, nowadays...)
In Response

by: Temo Of Georgia from: Tbilisi
May 26, 2011 11:59
@ eric d

Can't agree more to what you have said, however judging from your post, you do not seem like a clueless westerner to me. However unfortunately police cracked down on the demonstrators yesterday, the move that was anticipated by many. Eventhough I am against violence in any manner it was a legitimate move (I was not really fond of those standing there), BUT the force used was not proportional and riot police injured tens of people, the worst happened and two people died (1 policeman and a demonstrator), but ironically they got hit by the speeding escort cars of the Opposition Leaders who fled the area once the riot police came. It is interesting to note though that they were given a chance to move to the different location as the Independence day parade was to be held a that place, but the same Leaders who fled once the police appeared refused to leave peacefully. This reiterates my position that this whole process was specifically set up to cause the civil unrest. Anyways I hope everything turns out well. Also there is no tension seen in the society after the brake down, as if it approved the crack down on protesters (this could be wrong though as it depicts my personal views)
In Response

by: eric d from: idaho falls idaho USA
May 26, 2011 22:21
@ TEMO

Yes, I just saw the bad news. There's no excuse for police brutality & violent crackdowns against demonstrators, which will just discredit the Sakaasvilii government. Of course, in this case I am "clueless," because I don't know whether provocateurs in the crowd incited the police brutality or if the whole protest was deliberately staged to provoke overreaction & discredit the government. Whatever, this situation makes Sakaasvilii look bad & will only serve Moscow's interests in causing instability in Georgia. I guess the best thing now would be for the Sakaasvilii government to call for an impartial investigation & if there was police misconduct to make sure those responsible are prosecuted. On the other side, if provocateurs incited the police, that also should be proven by the investigation & made public. Unfortunately, there's no way of establishing a completely "impartial," "objective," "fair" etc. investigation. We'll just have to see how Moscow spins the news for their propaganda purposes & hope the Russians don;t use this as a pretext to interfere in georgian affairs. It helps, too, if the international community is paying attention. So far, though, as far as I can tell, nobody in America even noticed...

by: eric d from: idaho falls idaho USA
May 27, 2011 23:17
@temo:

You still out there? I'd be interested in your response to the latest RFERL article. Amnesty International has called for an investigation esp. of violence against reporters. But Sakaasvilii saysthe protestors were supported by Moscow. I'm willing to believe Sakaasvilii. But I'd still want an investigation. What do Georgians know that we don't know & isn;t in the news?

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
May 31, 2011 11:34
If one looks at the video and pictures,
it looks like the same group of determined people with clubs was cut off
by water cannons when they separated from the crowd in attack mode
and it looks like they are the same people that were arrested,
few with bruzes or scratches.
Likely it is also the same group that responsible for a death
of two people - at least one of them a police officer.
I do not see in the images, so far, any excessive force that wouldn't
fitt the situation.
In USA and EU the killing of a policmen would have much more severe subcequences for the attackers.
We all know what they do to people, specially to non-Russians, in Russia.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
May 31, 2011 19:24
For Westeners-like and debating with them commentators:

Pre-Georgia was for-father of Caucasian race and Human Civilization, look:
WorldFreedomAndTruth.info (pictures)
Building settlements, most likely from the first center in area of Kartly.
Through history they brought out to the World Common Wealthes and even
Median UN-like relationships with known then World.
They still do, while being a small country badly damaged for last few
milleniums, specially by Russia.
For instance Gerge Balanchini and Alexandr Kartveli, in pre-WW2 USA alone.
Or, for instance, the exit strategy (with my advise too) for USA
leave intact countries like Afghanistan and Iraq with help of UN and internationalized police help from some Eastern Europe countries...

All informed in history know that Georgia will prosper in dignity much faster than Russia, if Russia, possessed by Varanga envy and hate, wouldn't commit crimes against Humanity and UN Charter against Georgia, all Caucasus, CIS, Eastern Europe and Asia...


by: eric d from: idaho falls Idaho USA
June 04, 2011 23:16
I'm surprised RFE/RL hasn't done a follow-up on the Georgian demonstrations & Amnesty's call for an invetsigation. For a fairly good "official" (or "semi-official"?) account, see The Georgian Times, "On Rustaveli Avenue The Georgians blame Russia for recent protests." geotime.ge/index.php?m=home&news=25053.

PS The Georgians don't just "blame" the Russians. They have some pretty good evidence to back it up. Check the article for details.

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