contributor perspectives

Jul 12, 2019 | 18:59 GMT

2 mins read

Photo Essay: Anti-Government, Anti-Russia Protests Rage On in Georgia

Board of Contributors
Onnik James Krikorian
Board of Contributors
A woman raises her flag and blows a whistle at Georgia's Parliament building. She wears an eye patch to protest the dispersal of a previous demonstration.
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The Big Picture

Analysts believe the protests are about more than just about a Russian legislator's appearance in the Georgian Parliament. They also represent disillusionment with the ruling Georgian Dream party and the societal divide between a younger generation looking to the West and Georgia's older, more conservative and traditional institutions.

Protesters in Tbilisi have entered their fourth week of demonstrations in response to an official visit by Russian legislator Sergei Gavrilov to the country on June 20. During an inter-parliamentary meeting on Orthodoxy, Gavrilov angered many Georgians when he addressed the Georgian Parliament in Russian from the parliamentary speaker’s chair. 

Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia in 2008 following the Russian-Georgian War and Moscow’s recognition of two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as independent states. Russia supports and has a military presence in both former territories, which explains why most Georgians still consider Moscow to be an occupying force.

In response to the protests over Gavrilov’s visit, which the ruling Georgian Dream party later described as a "protocol error," Russia announced on July 8 that it would suspend all direct flights to Georgia, advising Russian tourists not to visit the country. The move is predicted to cause huge economic losses for Georgia.

Nevertheless, protesters representing the "For Freedom" movement continue their daily demonstrations outside the Parliament building on Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue, maintaining that they will not stop until the government addressed all three of their demands. At the time of writing, only one of those demands has been met. 

Protesters gather on the steps of Georgia's Parliament, waving flags and shields used by riot police.

Following outrage at Russian legislator Sergei Gavrilov's appearance in the Georgian Parliament, thousands of Georgians gathered outside the building to protest Russia's military presence in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as what they perceived to be the ruling Georgian Dream party's appeasement of Moscow. Although the demonstrations started peacefully, some protesters later attempted to break into the Parliament building, resulting in the deployment of riot police. During a tense standoff, protesters stripped police of their riot shields and batons and handed them down to the mob below.

Protesters cover their faces as tear gas is fired into the crowd.

The demonstration had remained mostly peaceful until tear gas was fired without warning into the crowd. Despite the main flashpoint being at the very front of the protests, police initially fired the tear gas into areas where crowd members, including women and children, were standing quietly. Some journalists were also wounded from what are now known to be rubber bullets and other non-lethal riot control munitions. 

Riot police line the steps of Georgia's Parliament building.

Protesters fled the scene at the Parliament building after the initial dispersal, only to return once the tear gas had dissipated. As tensions increased between protesters and police, riot forces were eventually ordered to move in, armed with water cannons as well as more rubber bullets and tear gas. Among the hundreds injured in the subsequent clash were two protesters, including an 18-year-old woman, who lost their eyes after being hit in the face by rubber bullets. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch consider the police's use of force to have been disproportionate, while EU and British ambassadors in Tbilisi have urged a transparent investigation.

Tired protesters congregate in a square in Tbilisi.

Prior to the clash, the current Georgian government had always stated that the previous administration of Mikhail Saakashvili was the only government that would use force against peaceful protesters. In addition to those injured in the dispersal, hundreds of demonstrators were also detained. Later, on July 4, Georgian prosecutors requested to strip legislator Nika Melia of his parliamentary immunity, in order to charge him for inciting the protests and leading what the government would later allege to be coup attempts. Melia is a member of the Saakashvili's United National Movement party and has since been released on bail.

A young girl wearing an eye patch and holding a Georgian flag joins the protest.

Thousands of outraged Georgians assembled the next day in a non-partisan demonstration to call for government action on three key demands. These included the adoption of a fully proportional electoral system before the country's 2020 parliamentary elections; the release of all those detained during the previous night’s protests; and finally, the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia. Parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze resigned just a day after the dispersal in an attempt to defuse tensions over the "Gavrilov affair."

A woman wears an eye patch in protest of the dispersal of the protest.

A protester pays tribute to the two fellow demonstrators who lost their eyes during the June 20 police dispersal. The 20 percent written on her eye patch represents the total amount of territory that Tbilisi no longer has under its control. What initially started off as an anti-Russia demonstration and has since become known as the "For Freedom" movement, offering a space for Georgians to voice discontent with their government. Although some opposition figures have attended the rallies, the organizers maintain that they are not allied to any political force and will not waiver on their demands by calling for snap elections.

Protesters attached balloons with messages of resistance to their scooters.

With Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia refusing to step down and continuing to justify the June 20 use of force, demonstrators have since held two marches at the residence and business center of the country's former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili's $50 million complex was designed by Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu and overlooks Tbilisi. The founder and current chairperson of the Georgian Dream party, the reclusive billionaire is considered to hold the real political power in Georgia, governing from behind the scenes. In both marches, the processions were led by activists riding scooters. Protesters stopped at the entrance tunnel to the structure.

A woman raises her flag and blows a whistle at the Parliament building. She wears an eye patch to protest the dispersal of a previous demonstration.

A protester stands at the entrance to Ivanishvili’s residence and business center blowing a whistle. Her patch not only represents the 20 percent of Georgian territory considered occupied by Russia, but the date (June 20) of the first police dispersal. In response to protesters' demands, Ivanishvili announced that Georgia would hold parliamentary elections fully under a proportional system next year, bringing ahead a move initially slated for 2024. But there are still no signs that Gakharia intends to resign.

Demonstrators march along the streets waving flags and carrying signs.

The daily demonstrations held outside Georgian Parliament remain relatively small, attracting only a few hundred to a few thousand participants. However, actions such as marches appeal to more people and are often buoyed by the additional presence of supporters of the United National Movement and its offshoot, European Georgia. The protesters have even staged a music festival as part of the ongoing demonstrations.

Police forces line up in the road, preparing to disband the demonstration.

On July 8, far-right and ultra-conservative religious groups gathered outside Parliament where the For Freedom protesters were assembling. The extremist groups initially intended to prevent Tbilisi’s first-ever LGBTQ Pride march from taking place the same day. Some analysts and civil society activists believe these extremist groups are also pro-Russian. Tensions between the two sides have also since been heightened by a news presenter's recent foul-mouthed address to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Georgian television station, Rustavi 2. Police blocked Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue to keep the groups apart and avert violent clashes. At the time of this writing, the protests are ongoing.


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