On Rustaveli Avenue, in central Tbilisi, a rally of pro-Western opposition and student organizations has assembled near the Georgian parliament building and continues into its fifth day. On this spot began all of the most important events in the modern history of Georgia, including the 2003 “Rose Revolution” and the 1991 civil war (Civil.ge, June 21).
Back in 2012, the Georgian Dream (GD) party of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili held a “rally of winners” in this location. The GD and its supporters came out into the street to joyfully celebrate their victory over former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in that year’s parliamentary elections, held on October 1.
But after 6.5 years of uninterrupted GD rule, the public attitude toward this political faction has changed drastically. A major factor in this drop in popularity has been the growing uncertainty on the part of the majority of Georgians that GD and the government of Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze are sincerely pursuing a pro-Western policy and have no plans to capitulate to Moscow.
The “trigger” for these latest protests in downtown Tbilisi was an incident that occurred on June 20, in the central hall of the Georgian parliament. Specifically, an “Orthodox Communist” member of the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament), Sergei Gavrilov, suddenly took the main chair (normally reserved for the speaker) of the Georgian legislature to preside over a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy (IAO) (Civil.ge, June 21). The international Assembly was held in Tbilisi by the decision of the Georgian authorities as a means to boost further cooperation between Georgia and other majority–Orthodox Christian countries—first of all, Russia.
Reportedly, the IAO agenda and program was personally approved by the chairperson of the Georgian parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, with the permission of Prime Minister Bakhtadze’s government and the leaders of the GD. In other words, it was not a decision of a group of members of parliament but a joint decision of all key Georgian authorities (Civil.ge, June 21).
The invitation to Sergei Gavrilov and the other Russian deputies to come to Georgia was sent out by Georgian member of parliament Zakhariy Kutsnashvili. The Georgian parliamentarian told this author that he had always been a supporter of “constructive dialogue” with Moscow, but did not expect that “Orthodox Communist” Gavrilov would preside over the meeting at the Georgian parliament. “The first meeting of the Assembly, according to the program, was to be chaired by the Secretary General of the organization—a Greek [deputy] and not Gavrilov,” Kutsnashvili stressed (Author’s interview, June 20).
During a break in the meeting of the IAO, leaders of the opposition European Georgia (EG) party entered the hall. They blocked the place where Deputy Gavrilov sat a few minutes earlier and stopped the meeting of the Assembly. According to one of the EG party leaders, Sergo Ratiani, “We were surprised and indignant that the Georgian authorities invited the Russian deputies to the parliament. But when we saw that Sergei Gavrilov was sitting in the chair of the president [speaker] of our national parliament, it was a real shock.” Ratiani added, “We know that Gavrilov voted for the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008” (Author’s interview, June 21).
Ratiani further argued that Gavrilov sat in the chair of the speaker of the Georgian parliament not at his own initiative but at the request of the Georgian authorities. “I do not believe Kutsnashvili’s statements that Gavrilov personally is to blame for everything and our authorities knew nothing. What happened once again confirms that billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and his party want to capitulate to Moscow. Another symptom is the refusal to build the deep-sea Anaklia port,” Ratiani posited (Author’s interview, June 21; see EDM, June 18).
On the evening of June 20, the police used force against the protesters congregating in front of the parliament building. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. In the resulting melee, 240 people, including 80 police officers, were injured. Two demonstrators lost an eye to the rubber bullet barrages. About 300 opposition supporters were arrested for resisting law enforcement (Ekho Kavkaza, June 21).
The authorities ultimately admitted that inviting Sergei Gavrilov to Georgia was a grave mistake. Parliamentary chairperson Irakli Kobakhidze resigned, but he made no public statements to date. GD lawmaker Zakhary Kutsnashvili also declared he was leaving the legislature and resigning from his parliamentary seat.
But these concessions are proving insufficient at this point. Opposition leaders and rally participants on Rustaveli Avenue are now demanding the immediate resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia. UNM member of parliament and former Georgian ambassador to the European Union, Salome Samadashvili, told this author that Gakharia is the most important figure in Ivanishvili’s closest circle. “We know, that Gakharia was a citizen of Russia. He had a business in Russia and, on the instructions of Ivanishvili [who also formerly held Russian citizenship and made his fortune in Russia—Civil.ge, December 26, 2011], he is doing everything to discredit the pro-Western course of Georgia,” Samadashvili asserted, continuing, “Gakharia is the main lobbyist of the interests of Russia and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in the Georgian government” (Author’s interview, June 21)
The second demand of the demonstrators is the release of all young people arrested on the day of the protests. The opposition also insists on snap parliamentary elections using proportional party lists. Until now, all elections in Georgia after 1990 were held in a mixed, majority-proportional system. But oppositionists are confident that this provides an advantage to the ruling party: “Deputies elected in majority electoral districts can never be independent from Ivanishvili,” the leader of the Republic Party, David Berdzenishvili, explained (Author’s interview, May 21). On Monday (June 24), Ivanishivili agreed to elections using solely proportional lists, but he wants to vote to happen on schedule—that is, in 2020—rather than right away (Civil.ge, June 24). UNM leader Saakashvili has called on his supporters to vehemently reject this half-concession (Civil.ge, Facebook.com/SaakashviliMikheil, June 24).
Independent analyst David Avalishvili told this author that, in recent years, Georgia’s de facto leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has “softened” his rhetoric toward Moscow, fearing economic sanctions. “Gavrilov’s invitation was just a manifestation of this ‘loyalty policy.’ But as a result, the Georgian authorities received both a new Russian embargo and mass protests,” Avalishvili said (Author’s interview, June 23).
The ultimate outcome of the current political confrontation in Tbilisi will be almost entirely dependent on the position of the West. The authorities and the opposition are still waiting for an unequivocal assessment and recommendations from the United States and EU governments.