The protests that began on May 21 were coordinated by the People's Representative Assembly, an umbrella opposition grouping established last year by former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who heads the opposition Democratic Movement--United Georgia. Now acknowledged as one of the leaders of the so-called radical opposition, Burjanadze announced in early May her intention to launch a new wave of peaceful protests on May 21 with the stated intention of forcing the Georgian leadership to schedule early parliamentary and presidential elections.
The People's Representative Assembly applied for, and was duly granted by the municipal authorities, permission to protest from May 21 until midnight on May 25. Some 10,000 people showed up on May 21, the first day of the protest, but the number of participants dwindled on subsequent days.
There were sporadic scuffles between protest participants and police, many of the latter in plainclothes. Between May 21 and 22, 36 protesters were detained, of whom 14 were jailed for up to three months.
Burjanadze was quoted by Caucasus Press as saying on May 11 that in light of the planned protests, the authorities "would not be able" to stage a military parade planned to mark the anniversary on May 26 of the declaration in 1918 of Georgia's independence. On May 23, she announced that the protesters would proceed on May 25 from outside the building of the Public Broadcaster to Liberty Square, where the parade was to take place, arguing that they had "a moral right" to do so. She also said, according to Caucasus Press, that the protesters would use staves to protect themselves against any attempt to disperse the rally. The protesters halted on May 25 on the square opposite the parliament building rather than proceed down Rustaveli Avenue to Liberty Square.
On the evening of May 25, the Tbilisi municipal authorities called on the protesters, who at that juncture numbered approximately 800, to vacate the square in front of the parliament building and Rustaveli Avenue, and suggested several other locations in the city where they could reassemble. Burjanadze responded by calling on Saakashvili to cancel the parade altogether, Caucasus Press reported.
Shortly after midnight, some 2,000 heavily armed special forces and riot police surrounded and then attacked the protest participants using water cannon, tear gas, and rubber bullets. They pursued those who sought to escape, kicking and beating some who sought refuge in a nearby church and cinema. One Western eyewitness commented that the police "were clearly more concerned with snuffing out any resistance than calling in for help for captured protesters and bystanders, many of whom were bleeding from head wounds."
One protester and one policeman were reportedly killed by a car in which unidentified oppositionists drove away at high speed from the scene of the rally. The bodies of two more men whose hands were tied behind their backs were found only late on May 27. According to unconfirmed reports received by RFE/RL's Georgian Service, they appear to have been beaten before they died. The Georgian authorities give the cause of death as accidental electrocution.
Almost 40 people were hospitalized; up to 150 remain in custody. By contrast, when police intervened using similar methods to disperse anti-Saakashvili protesters in Tbilisi in November 2007, no one was killed, but over 500 people sought medical aid, mostly for the after-effects of tear gas.
While the protesters were clearly acting illegally in refusing to comply with the authorities' demand to disperse by midnight on May 25, the police response has been widely condemned as disproportionately brutal. One of the first to make that point was Georgia's human rights ombudsman, Giorgi Tughushi, who said later on May 26 that although there were "legal grounds" for dispersing the rally, "the use of disproportionate force was especially obvious, when in some cases the law enforcement officers were physically insulting and in others detaining those protesters who were not offering any resistance to the police."
Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department, U.S. Ambassador in Tbilisi John Bass, the OSCE, and Amnesty International have all called for a thorough and objective investigation of what Bass termed "excesses in the aftermath of the disruption of the protest."
Amnesty International stressed that the investigation should "examine the instructions issued to individual [police] officers on the ground." Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili had announced on May 21, when the protests got under way, that the police would "act appropriately." He implied that the protests were so "unserious" as to warrant "taking no action at all."
Georgian NGOs similarly called for an investigation, while opposition parliament deputies demanded the creation of an interim parliamentary commission to perform that task. The pro-Saakashvili parliament majority rejected that demand on May 30 as "superfluous" and "speculative": majority lawmaker Givi Targamadze announced that the law enforcement agencies were already conducting their own probe into what happened.
President Saakashvili on May 26 expressed condolences to the families of the two known victims, reaffirmed his commitment to free speech as "our sacred value," and proceeded to write off the protests as orchestrated by Russia, just as he had done in 2007.
Winners And Losers
The biggest loser from the standoff, at least in the short to medium term, is undoubtedly Burjanadze, who with characteristic hyperbole described the dispersal of the protesters by police as "a crime against humanity" that eclipsed in brutality even the crackdown by Soviet troops on protesters in Tbilisi in 1989 in which 19 people died.
Burjanadze's husband, former border-guard commander Badri Bitsadze, has been formally charged with organizing an attack by a specially prepared armed group on police during the five days of protests and has reportedly fled the country. In the event of his arrest, the Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office has set bail of 100,000 laris (about $60,000) which Burjanadze has said she has no intention of paying. She has publicly denied rumors they plan to divorce.
Burjanadze's uncompromising insistence that mobilizing the population in a peaceful revolution is the only way to bring about regime change in Georgia might have proven more appealing had it not been offset by her geopolitical pragmatism with regard to Russia. She and other prominent former Saakashvili allies, including former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, have travelled repeatedly to Moscow over the past 18 months for talks with Russian leaders on how bilateral relations could and should be rebuilt in the wake of the August 2008 war over South Ossetia. Saakashvili and other senior Georgian officials have consistently construed those consultations as a concerted effort to make common cause with the Kremlin to oust him.
Equally discredited is former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, whose inconsistency has contributed to the disintegration of the opposition Georgian Party of which he was one of the five co-founders last fall. Like the People's Representative Assembly, the Georgian Party too advocates bringing the population out on to the streets in protest with the aim of mounting a peaceful revolution.
Okruashvili was constrained to leave Georgia in October 2007 after he accused Saakashvili in a live television interview of protectionism, turning a blind eye to corruption, and proposing the murder of a political opponent. He currently lives in France, where he was granted political asylum.
Divided They Fail
The relations between the Georgian Party and the People's Representative Assembly in the run-up to and during the May protests constitute a classic example of how Georgian opposition leaders are chronically incapable of surmounting clashes of egos and perceived slights and insults to make common cause against a leadership they consider corrupt and inept.
Bitsadze, Burjanadze's husband, had accused Gachechiladze in a newspaper interview last December of seeking to strike a deal with Saakashvili in the wake of that election whereby Gachechiladze would drop his objections that the vote was rigged in return for a large sum of money and the chance to serve for six months as prime minister.
A second Georgian Party leader, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, again suggested to Burjanadze on May 17 that the two organizations stage joint protests, but Burjanadze reportedly opted to go it alone. Some Georgian Party members nonetheless joined the demonstration in Tbilisi on May 22. Also on May 22, Okruashvili announced his intention to return to Tbilisi on May 25, which he vowed would be Saakashvili's last day in power, and participate in a joint rally together with the People's Representative Assembly.
Just 48 hours later, however, Okruashvili announced that he was "temporarily delaying his return" because the People's Representative Assembly had gone back on an agreement to "cooperate" with the Georgian Party on unspecified issues. The Georgian Party then announced it would not, after all, stage a joint rally with the assembly on May 25. Burjanadze responded by branding Okruashvili "an even bigger coward than Saakashvili," Caucasus Press reported. But Georgian Party co-leaders Gachechiladze and Guntsadze still joined the May 25 protests and were among those targeted by police that night.
Gachechiladze and Guntsadze, together with two more prominent Georgian Party members, said on June 3 they had quit the party to protest decisions made by its other members that they claimed undermined opposition unity at a point when it was imperative for all opposition forces to close ranks. They affirmed that "a successful struggle against regimes of this type is possible only if all social and political forces consolidate in a united front."
Taking The High Road
The parliamentary and extra-parliamentary moderate opposition beg to differ, however. Eight moderate political parties (the Republican Party, the New Rightists, Our Georgia--Free Democrats, the Conservative Party, the People's Party, the Christian Democratic Movement, the National Forum, and Georgia's Path) formed a loose tactical alliance last fall to conduct talks with the authorities on amending the existing election law that is heavily weighted against opposition parties. Those talks hit deadlock three months ago, and the Georgian authorities have ignored an April statement by the EU representative in Tbilisi urging their resumption.
The opposition parties set a deadline of May 31 for the Georgian authorities to respond to their various proposals. But Our Georgia--Free Democrats leader and former Georgian Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania, an experienced politician respected by many Western governments, affirmed on June 7 that the group had nonetheless decided to "leave the door open" for future talks.
At the same time, the group now plans to set about building public support for its electoral-reform proposals in preparation for holding a large-scale plebiscite in the fall. Republican Party leader Davit Usupashvili told civil.ge that the plebiscite would entail "going from door to door and asking each and every family" to comment on the electoral-reform proposals. The group will also draft a bill based on those proposals for submission to parliament in the wake of the plebiscite, and, Usupashvili said, back its demands with "peaceful street demonstrations."
In a statement released on June 7, the eight parties defined their objective as giving "the people the opportunity to change the government peacefully through the holding of free elections, or, in the event that the elections are falsified, through the nonrecognition of the results by the international community."
On past experience, it seems probable that the Georgian authorities will either continue to ignore the opposition's reform proposals, or, acting on the assumption that the "moderate" opposition will not align with the radicals and take to the streets in protest, agree to changes that will be nixed or watered down at the last possible moment before they are put to a parliamentary vote, as happened in the run-up to the May 2008 parliamentary elections.
Neither course of action is likely to yield the level playing field the opposition considers a sine qua non for a democratic transfer of power -- something Georgia has not experienced once in the two decades since the U.S.S.R. collapsed.