Violent crackdown throws Georgian ruling party’s survival into question
Georgian Dream came to power promising never to use violence against protestors, as was common under the former government. Now, images of tear gas and rubber bullets have shaken Georgians.
The speaker of Georgia’s parliament resigned and the air remained electric with tension a day after violent clashes in the center of Tbilisi. Suddenly, the ruling party’s survival is in question with many Georgians angered that Georgian Dream did the one thing it promised never to do: use excessive force against a demonstration.
Two protesters, a man and woman, each lost an eye after being hit by rubber bullets fired by riot police, and over a dozen more protesters were being treated for severe injuries, said doctors at the New Hospital, a clinic in Tbilisi. “What did this child do to deserve this?” Lia Tsiklauri, a Tbilisi resident whose son’s jaw was shattered by a rubber bullet, asked journalists outside the clinic. “I hold the government responsible,” she said.
One who lost an eye was 18-year-old Maia Gomuri, who was not even participating in the protests but walking by on her way home from work, her sister told the news website Netgazeti.
Georgia’s Ministry of Health reported that 240 people were hospitalized on the night of June 20-21, including 80 police officers who sustained injuries when protesters tried to storm the parliament building. “Most of them have bruises and eye injuries,” Deputy Health Minister Zaza Bokhua told reporters. The Interior Ministry reported that 305 people had been arrested.
The protests broke out after a member of the Russian parliament, Sergey Gavrilov, presided over an international meeting of lawmakers from Orthodox Christian countries in the main chamber of Georgia’s parliament. Opposition parties and many ordinary Georgians were furious with the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party for letting Gavrilov and other Russian lawmakers into the national assembly.
Russia maintains troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway territories that most of the world considers Georgian territory, and those troops have been walling the territories off from the rest of Georgia with barbed wire. In that context, televised images of Gavrilov sitting in the chair of the speaker of Georgia’s parliament were seen by many Georgians as a grave insult.
In the evening a large, angry crowd gathered in front of the parliament building, accusing the government of collaborating with the Kremlin. “People came out here to condemn the fact that today our government has capitulated to Russia,” said Davit Katsarava, a leader of Anti-Occupation Movement, an activist group.
While some top officials apologized for hosting Russian lawmakers in the parliament, blaming it on a lapse in protocol, it did little to prevent tensions from spiraling out of control, as the incident crystallized the suspicion among many that GD harbors a covert strategy of shifting the country’s geopolitical orientation from the West to Moscow. Many of the protesters held Ukrainian as well as Georgian flags; Ukraine is in an analogous conflict with Russia.
Late in the evening, some in the crowd tried to break through a cordon of riot police and storm the parliament building. Protesters grabbed several riot police officers; snatched away their truncheons, shields and helmets; and hustled them away from the scene. Police eventually used tear gas and rubber bullets.
The advocacy group Media Ethics Charter reported that at least 32 journalists were injured while covering the events, including Reuters correspondent Maka Antidze and RFE/RL journalists Giorgi Chumburidze and Ilia Samurganidi, both of whom were hit by rubber bullets. Journalists from a variety of news outlets gathered for a rally outside the Ministry of Internal Affairs on the afternoon of June 21.
“Riot police can take legitimate measures to prevent the crowd from storming parliament, but they are obligated to abide by human rights standards for the use of force, including rubber bullets and teargas,” Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
To many Georgians, the events demonstrated that GD had reneged on one of its core electoral promises: not to use violence against protesting citizens. It was a practice that the previous ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM), was widely criticized for, and after GD followed suit many in Tbilisi now expect the party’s downfall.
Georgian Dream has “morphed” into the UNM, commentator Gia Khukhashvili told the IPN newswire. “Both sides [opposition and the government] are responsible for what happened. However, ultimately, the main responsibility rests with the government,” Khukhashvili said.
Some Georgians said the opposition deserved some share of the blame, as well.
“People had a legitimate protest, but the opposition, the UNM, exploited it to improve their chances of returning to power, as it is all that they want,” Sanata Dzadzamia, an actress who was displaced from her home Abkhazia during the war in the 1990s, told Eurasianet. “They deliberately stoked tensions and tried to lead people to storm the parliament […] The government then went completely overboard, injuring and maiming people. It was sickening to watch the violence and it was also sickening to watch people who themselves used violence against people not too long ago pretend that they care about it now.”
GD’s political rhetoric has always emphasized the events of November 7, 2007, when the UNM-led government violently broke up a demonstration in Tbilisi. Now some say that the Georgian Dream committed its own November 7 and will pay a high price for it. "The moment you [the government] started claiming that November 7 was worse, you have lost, it means you have hit rock bottom,” wrote Tinatin Khidasheli, a former defense minister and GD ally who has emerged as a government critic, on her Facebook page.
Others, though, suggested that GD and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili may be able to wriggle their way out of this crisis. “In contrast to the UNM, Georgian Dream is amorphous as a governing force,” Jaba Devdariani, a political commentator, told Eurasianet. He said that the ruling party’s is based on a peculiar structure, wherein dispensable placeholders formally occupy top government positions, but there is no ideological backbone and only a loose administrative structure. Real power rests with Ivanishvili and his allies, attached to him through personal and financial loyalty.
“Georgian Dream will collapse only when accepting Ivanishvili’s money will become unacceptable, or when Ivanishvili decides that it [GD] has outlived its utility,” Devdariani said. “But that won’t necessarily mean the end of Ivanishvili’s influence.”
One of those commonly seen as a dispensable GD placeholder, Speaker of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze, resigned on June 21. Zakaria Kutsnashvili, who organized the fateful meeting in parliament, also resigned.
Opposition parties, including the European Georgia and UNM, announced they would continue demonstrations on the evening of June 21.