For Tbilisi, the Battle of April 9, 1989 Continues
“Come out, come out,” chanted demonstrators, marching through Tbilisi's empty streets after midnight on April 9, 1989. The rhythmic, polyphonic call resounded eerily as the city held its breath for the culmination of Georgia’s push to end the rule of Soviet-era Moscow.
Several hours later, it woke up to the news that the Soviet army had brutally dispersed the pro-independence rally. A combination of beatings, stampede and tear-gas poisoning left 20 dead that night and hundreds injured.
Every April 9, the scenes are revisited. TV stations broadcast archival footage showing thousands of people holding candles on downtown Rustaveli Avenue; nationalist leaders making fiery speeches; Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II calling for demonstrators to disperse to a nearby church to avoid conflict; and, last, armored vehicles moving into the crowd, as violence and panic ensues.
The old footage revives memories of a more naive time when everyone, however briefly, united around a common cause. With all its songs, dances and lofty ideals, April 9 seems very distant compared to latter-day Georgia with its bare-knuckle politics. But for many Georgians, their country is still waging the same battle against the same enemy.
“Unfortunately, after 25 years ago [sic], it feels like we have never left that moment,” Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the Republican Party, part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on April 9 this year.
“Year after another, we are seeing [the] Russian army, Russian boots marching from one independent country to another… pursuing their very imperial cause of restoring . .. their imperial pride,” Khidasheli went on.
It appears that she was speaking to a largely sympathetic audience. In an April 10 vote, following yesterday's condemnation of the annexation of Crimea, PACE
opted to annul Russia's voting rights for the rest of 2014. It also will reserve the option to throw out the Russian delegation altogether if Moscow does not drop its annexation of Crimea and reduce tensions with Ukraine.
Alexei Pushkov, head of Russia's PACE delegation, which did not attend the vote, has indicated that Moscow might just take PACE up on that threat. "This political farce can arouse only disgust," he tweeted about the April 10 vote.
In Georgia, though, PACE's actions have aroused only delight. Khidasheli's own words against Russia marked the most poignant statement to come from the Georgian Dream since the Ukraine crisis began.
After the coalition's earlier tentative attempt to press the restart button with Moscow, the anti-Russian rhetoric that has dominated Georgian politics to one degree or another since 1991 was back.
“Let me remind those of you who are lost in [the] 20th century,” she said, turning to the Russian delegation. “[The] Soviet Union is over…Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine . . . are independent states . . . "
Just as happened in Prague and Tallinn, she continued, “sooner or later you will leave Crimea, you will leave Transdniestria, and you will definitely leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
But no sign exists that these words will have their intended effect.
Come June, when Georgia hopes to tie itself to the European Union via a signed Association Agreement, relations with Moscow are expected to get worse, before they get better.