In Georgia: Freedom Bashing

The Authorities’ Attempt to Stabilize the Situation Causes Dramatic Consequences

Demonstrators in Tbilisi with the city opera house in the background | Photo: David Machavariani

Former Prime Minister Avtandil Jorbenadze is beaten during the demonstration in Tbilisi | Photo: Nov. 7 Manifestation

Two months of turmoil in the Caucasus state of Georgia have seriously damaged the hopes for a smooth transition of power, according to opposition leaders there, and have undermined the choice of western powers, particularly the US, to support the nationalist government of Mikheil Saakashvili.

In spite of the recent lifting of the state of emergency on Nov. 17, a series of repressive acts – including the suppressing of a peaceful demonstration by Georgian police and Special Forces and the closing down of the western-owned Imedi TV – suggest that underlying tensions could easily erupt again in the remaining weeks leading up to presidential elections Jan. 5. Protests by opposition leaders against violations of human rights and the restrictions on free media have been met with a cold dissmisal by the government.

In the face of this upheaval, Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze has tried to reduce tensions and called for calm.

“This is not the best time for Georgia,” she told the International Herald Tribune on Nov 28th. “We are a democracy, but we are not as strong a democracy as France or the Netherlands. The difficulties we are experiencing are not unusual for a new democracy. Western European countries must understand they had more than a hundred years to build democracy. We have had only six years.” What follows is a recapitulation and analysis of the events of the last two months:

It all started at the end of September when Georgian ex-Minister of defense Irakli Okruashvili accused Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of numerous flaws including corruption: “[Saakashvili’s] ruling style… has turned immorality, injustice, oppression, reprisals, the demolition of homes and churches, and… murder… into norms of everyday life.”  Seventy hours later the ex-Minister of defense was arrested for money laundering and abuse of power. From jail, he confessed that everything he had said before was a lie.

He was then released on a very stiff bail, and after a few days was apparently forcefully exiled to Munich, Germany. From Munich Okruashvili gave another interview saying that in jail he was forced by authorities to deny his earlier testimony and that all he said before his arrest was true, but his voice would not be that loud this time.

Demonstrators in Tbilisi with the city opera house in the background | Photo: David Machavariani

This relatively trivial incident caused a chain reaction in Georgia and gave the opposition an opportunity to question the government’s power with more evidence. By November, Georgia was already deep in political crisis, leading news reports all over the world. Okruashvili’s accusations were not the only case triggering the opposition’s reinforcement. It was the President’s decision on the postponing of the parlamentary elections from Spring to Fall 2008. Saakashvili justifyed his statement by saying:  “In Jan. or Feb. 2008, the fate of Kosovo will be decided, because Russia has made it clear it planned to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia if Kosovo’s [independence] will be recognized, which in turn means a risk of having confrontation. So we have decided to… prolong the parliament term in office.”

Thus, the opposition coalition of 10 Georgian parties formulated a set of demands: Holding the parliamentary elections in April 2008; freeing political prisoners; creating new election administrations with delegates from all parties; and changing the current majority system of governing.

On Nov. 2, some 80,000 people that came to Tbilisi from all parts of Georgia the previous night, gathered for a peaceful demonstration.

“We do not want a revolution, we want elections,” said Koba Davitashvili, leader of the Party of People on the manifestation: “We are leaving room for a face-saving decision by the authorities.” He insisted these were not ultimatums: “I am sure the authorities will compromise,” he said. Officials went along, describing the demonstrations as a part of the democracy.

But according to the statements made repeatedly by Nino Burjanadze, the demonstration was not the right place for the dialogue.While expressing a willingness to compromise, Burjanadze made it clear that the election date was not up for negotiation.

The next day, when the demonstration continued and the crowd standing near the Parliament started to shout at the President to “Go Away,” the government attempted to sidetrack people by organizing a pop concert at Lokomotivi stadium.

Government comments became harsher; Education Minister Kakha Lomaia dismissed the demands of the opposition, saying they “did not reflect the true needs of Georgians” and called the slogan “Georgia without the President” a dream and a trap by the Kremlin.

Businessman Badri Patarcatsishvili, former co-owner of the TV channel Imedi, who was accused of financing the opposition’s campaign, addressed the gathering, saying he had came from London to stand beside “wise Georgian people.”

“I have no ambition of having any official position; the only ambition I have is to be an ordinary citizen who will be able to build a united and prosperous Georgia,” he said. “I believe that we have enough wisdom to solve problems through political means.”

On Nov. 4, President Saakashvili finally broke the silence. Calling the opposition’s actions a weak attempt to imitate the Rose Revolution that had brought him to the power in 2003, he labeled their political machinations a “factory of lies,” and blamed Russian Oligarchs for staging chaos in Georgia in advance of the elections in Russia.

Later the president spoke of his sincere love for his country, problems of unemployment and territorial integrity, and ended with the promise of 14% economic growth by year-end 2007. “I had an impression that Saakashvili lives in an absolutely different country,” said Giorgi Khaindrava of the Georgian Institute of Equality.

The opposition’s answers were varied. The New Right Party leader Davit Gamkrelidze openly suggested holding a referendum that would allow people to decide on a date for the elections. Four opposition activists – Levan Gachechiladze, Koba Davitashvili, Paata Davitaia and Bidzina Gegidze – started a hunger strike. Another opposition leader, Tina Khidasheli, demanded the immediate release of political prisoner Irakli Batiashvili as the first step toward a start of negotiations. The attempt failed.

On Nov. 7, early in the morning, the Georgian police broke up the demonstration. The government was against the opposition’s decision to set up the tents and stay in the streets. Also, ordinary citizens were complaining, demanding the roads be freed of protestors. When demonstrators refused to leave the area, police used tear gas (which they claimed was “western” and thus “not dangerous”) and rubber clubs to “clean out” Rustaveli Avenue. A spokesman for the Health Ministry reported that 508 people had been hospitalized with respiratory problems from the tear gas and from injuries resulting from the use of the rubber bullets and batons.

“When the authorities are against the freedom of assembly, it only indicates… the lack of democracy in the country,” said Georgian ex-minister of foreign affairs Salome Zurabishvili. After being forced to leave Rustaveli Avenue, the crowd moved to Rike – a more quiet part of the city, in hopes of continuing the demonstration. But police and Special Forces there acted with the same cruelty. “Only a fascist power could do this,” said demonstrator Nana Abuladze, 56. Several TV stations, including Imedi TV, Rustavi 2 and Mze, broadcast live footage of the events.  The same day, Special Forces raided the Imedi TV building during the evening news, crushing the equipment and cameras, and throwing journalists and staff out of the building.

The next day, “to restore order and to prevent any possible threats,” President Saakashvili imposed marshal law that was planned to last 15 days. Severe restrictions on Georgian mass media were announced; news programs on all private channels were cancelled, and restrictions on the dissemination of information, demonstrations and strikes were imposed. The Georgian Public Broadcaster became the only source of information in the country, representing primarily the government’s point of view.

Protests from the international community followed immediately. “I am concerned about the latest developments in Georgia,” said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. “Political differences should be resolved within the democratic institutions.”

A special representative of the Organization for South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, arrived in Tbilisi. The OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos also expressed his concern, urging Georgian people to remain calm, avoid excesses and engage in constructive dialogue.

“Even in a time of crisis, Georgians have a right to protest peacefully without being beaten by the police,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Firing rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators is a complete abuse of the use of force. The government does not have a carte blanche to restrict fundamental freedoms just because it is in crisis. “Beating journalists or shutting down television stations for reporting on the events can’t be justified by subsequently declaring a state of emergency,” Cartner added.

On November 8th, Saakashvili rescheduled the presidential elections for Jan. 5th and decided to organize a plebiscite on the timing of parliamentary elections. Although welcoming these decisions, the U.S. State Department urged the Georgian government “to lift the state of emergency and restore all media broadcasts. These are necessary steps to restore the democratic conditions for the election and referendum. We call on all parties to…address their differences through serious discussions to strengthen Georgia’s democratic political system. These discussions should take place in a spirit of compromise and in support of Georgia’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and commitment to human rights.”

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