TBILISI -- Georgians who mounted weekend protests over police antidrug raids say they will be back on the streets for a new demonstration on May 19 if their demands are not met.
An organizer of the rallies in Tbilisi, Beka Tsikarishvili, said on May 14 that the protests would resume if the Interior Ministry fails to change its approach to antidrug efforts, which critics say are misguided and heavy-handed.
Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze told journalists that Interior Ministry officials and protest leaders will convene in the next few days to discuss the potential changes in antidrug policies.
"My statement issued [on May 12] said that the drug policy should be changed. This is a serious problem for our country and people," Kaladze said.
"On the whole, the state should not punish but protect people from drugs," he said. "We all need to fight drug dealers together and I'm sure many people will join this fight."
Hundreds of people took to the streets of Tbilisi in the early hours of May 12 to protest an overnight antidrug raid by police on two popular nightclubs, angered by what critics called an excessive use of force against club-goers.
The Interior Ministry said its officers had detained eight suspected drug dealers after storming the two clubs, Bassiani and Cafe Gallery. Some club-goers allege that drugs may have been planted by police.
The protests resumed late on May 13, and at least two ultra-right-wing groups staged a counterdemonstration.
Clad in black shirts, some wearing face masks and burgundy armbands, they said they were against "drug traders" and "LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] propaganda" and announced the creation of a "national guard army to protect our motherland."
Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili appealed for calm in a nationally televised address amid the rival rallies, saying that any "confrontation in the country and split in society is unacceptable for the Georgian authorities and people."
He said that "each side, each person has the right to express their opinion freely, but confrontations...are completely unacceptable and we cannot let it happen.
"Law enforcement agencies are doing their best to secure law and order and ensure the right and freedom to rally," Kvirikashvili said, adding that the authorities "will have a tough position toward drug dealers and a humane position toward drug addicts."
Police prevented the right-wingers from approaching the parliament building, where the protest was taking place. They later arrested a leader of another ultra-right group, Giorgi Gabedava, who had threatened the demonstrators.
On May 14, President Giorgi Margvelashvili thanked police for "preventing a confrontation between the two rallies" and called the whole situation "a collapse of political and administrative actions and a series of mistakes."
"Our aim is to maintain freedom of expression and freedom of speech and at the same time to keep order on the streets and in political and public processes," said Margvelashvili, who is often at odds with Kvirikashvili and his cabinet.
The protests in Georgia followed weeks of unrelated street demonstrations in neighboring Armenia that forced the prime minister to resign and led to the election of Nikol Pashinian, an opposition activist and politician to the premiership.