For the first time since the November 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government has faced a large-scale, violent anti-governmental rally involving major opposition parties.
The protest erupted June 30 on Tbilisi’s central avenue after a court sentenced two popular wrestlers, Alexei Davitashvili, president of the Georgian Wrestling Federation, and Giorgi Revazishvili, national judo champion, to three months in jail on charges of extorting $8,000 from a Greek businessman. Angered over the verdict, the wrestlers’ supporters vandalized the courtroom, blocked traffic, and gathered on the central avenue. Authorities quickly mobilized a considerable police response, including anti-terror commandos, to prevent a riot.
The police and special troops managed to disperse the crowd of about 600 people and arrested some 70 protesters. Video footage played repeatedly on several Georgian television stations showed plainclothes police and security agents beating demonstrators and shoving them into police cars. Police reportedly used excessive force against journalists covering the event and bystanders. Several detainees were released on July 1, but others face trial on charges of organizing mass disorder.
Many wrestlers and sportsman, including Olympic and world champions, backed the detainees, arguing that the government should not mistreat the wrestlers, who had brought fame to the country.
The Interior Ministry arrested the wrestlers on June 28 after wiretaps and hidden cameras confirmed their illegal transaction. While the ministry’s website stated that the wrestlers were members of a criminal business network, the wrestlers claimed that they only wanted the Greek businessman to repay a debt.
The rally turned political when opposition groups and parties sided with the protesters. The opposition accused the authorities, especially Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, of unnecessary use of force, violating the constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of assembly and speech, and demanded the minister’s resignation. Some members of the intelligentsia also criticized the government for its use of excessive force.
In response, officials criticized the media for excessive coverage of the incident, prompting journalists to establish a union to defend their rights.
At a July 6 joint news conference, parliamentary opposition parties accused the government of pressuring the mass media. The opposition MPs focused on Mze (Sun) TV company, noting that Friday, July 8, would be the last day the station would broadcast its popular talk show, Archevanis Zghvarze (On the brink of choice) and warned that the authorities were going to close down Mze TV’s other information programs because of the network’s objective coverage of the recent protest rallies.
The conflict continued at an extraordinary session of parliament on July 1. When the ruling National Movement called the police response justified, punches were thrown.
That same day, opposition and civic leaders put aside their differences and convened at one of Tbilisi’s city squares. However, the low turnout — about 500 people — suggested that, despite the ruling party’s decreasing popularity, voters have little faith in the current opposition leaders. Yet they were not deterred by the low attendance. “We should begin a civil movement against the authorities’ violence,” Koba Davitashvili, leader of the Conservative Party, told the crowd.
Some analysts, however, argue that by shifting the efforts to support the wrestlers’ rally the opposition may lose the political mileage it had gained during the recent political debates on direct elections for Tbilisi’s mayor.
The “Wrestlers’ Case” has divided many of the civic leaders that had sided with Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution.
At a July 1 news conference, leaders of the respected Liberty Institute, Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, Open Society-Georgia Foundation, and the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies justified the government’s actions and denounced the opposition for siding with “criminals.” They also criticized the authorities for being unable to solve disagreements in a democratic way. “It is very hard to be optimistic about the development of democracy in Georgia,” said Gia Nodia of the Caucasus Institute. However, other well-known NGOs, including the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights, accused the government of violence against its citizens and restricting their rights.
President Saakashvili and his team mockingly dismissed the opposition’s demands and praised the Interior Ministry. Gigi Ugulava, head of the presidential administration, said, “Unfortunately, we are no longer dealing with an opposition, we are dealing with a crime group.” Leaders of the pro-Saakashvili majority in parliament dismissed opposition leaders as “foreign spies” and called for the immediate adoption of the “Law on Lustration” to identify the real patrons behind the opposition political parties. Some analysts say that, with these moves, Saakashvili has closed off channels for a dialogue with the opposition and their supporters, and he is leading the country toward a new civil confrontation.
Could the Wrestlers’ Case unify the anti-Saakashvili opposition? Although opposition groups declared their intention to act jointly against “violence of the government,” some of them (such as the Conservative and Republican parties) may still tend to differentiate the “good Saakashvili” from his “bad entourage,” hoping to have the president on their side. Meanwhile, other opposition parties want to oust both Saakashvili and his party.
Ironically, the Wrestlers’ Case has vividly revealed the Georgian state’s numerous vulnerabilities, just 18 months after the Rose Revolution. The weak spots include citizens’ deep distrust in the fairness of the judiciary, disregard for the presumption of innocence, low civic awareness, a widening gap between Saakashvili’s supporters and the rest of society, and the Saakashvili government’s moves toward authoritarian democracy.
Analysts argue that Saakashvili should dissolve the highly unpopular parliament in order to prevent civil confrontation and refocus society’s efforts on the pre-term election campaign.
(www.police.ge, Resonance, Akhali Taoba, Civil Georgia, Imedi TV, Gazeta.ru, Regnum, June 30-July 2; Kviris Palitra, Caucasus Press, July 4)