Political Tensions in Georgia Escalate as Protesters, Police Clash in Front of Parliament

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 167

Police in Tbilisi direct a water cannon stream against protesters (Source: AP)

On November 30, at the Biltmore Hotel, in Tbilisi, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party and the opposition held their first round of negotiations over how to resolve the country’s ongoing political crisis (Interpressnews.ge, November 30). Five former speakers of the Georgian parliament participated in the meeting, which was mediated by a group of diplomats from Western countries.

This initial attempt to reach a compromise on switching to the so-called “German electoral model” ahead of next year’s general elections failed (1tv.ge, November 30). Georgia is, thus, still far from breaking the political deadlock it found itself in after November 14, when the parliamentary majority voted against a constitutional amendment to transition the country to a “German”-style fully proportional electoral system (see EDM, November 20). At present, Georgia has a mixed—half proportional, half majoritarian single-constituency district—system for electing the national legislature, which gives substantial preference to the incumbent ruling party.

On November 15, the opposition called on supporters to launch peaceful street protests in front of the Georgian parliament. But authorities twice used force to break up the crowd and reopen access to the building. Several people were injured in clashes with the police; about forty protesters were arrested and received fines or short jail sentences.

These ongoing confrontations in the street culminated on November 28, when, by order of the government, the police built a metal fence around the parliament. Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who heads the main opposition party United National Movement (UNM), likened this fence to the “Berlin Wall” (Svoboda.org, November 28). Under extreme public pressure, the “wall” was soon dismantled. But there is no guarantee it will not reappear: one of the leaders of the European Georgia (EG) party, Sergo Ratiani told this author that the opposition parties, along with civic activists, “will continue to create discomfort for the GD MPs [members of parliament] who deceived the nation” (Author’s interview, November 29).

On November 29, Georgian Dream supporters threw brooms and eggs at UNM’s central office in Kutaisi and covered the front door in graffiti (1tv.ge, November 29). Georgian experts believe that civic activism and intransigence on both sides may lead to a repetition of past wide-scale turmoil. “In 1991, when the authorities used their supporters against the opposition, this led to the appearance of barricades in front of the parliament and then to shootings by both sides,” political analyst David Avalishvili noted (Author’s interview, November 29).

Georgia’s Western partners are actively trying to help both sides reach a compromise. After last week’s negotiations in the Biltmore Hotel, the United States’ chargé d’affaires in Tbilisi, Elizabeth Rood, expressed hope that this round of consultations would not be the last. “We are very pleased that the dialogue is beginning here today. As I view it, the purpose of this dialogue is to search for options, rather than to exclude options. The United States is very pleased to be able to support this dialogue through USAID, which has funded today’s venue. And we are very pleased also, that we have the Secretary of the Venice Commission, Thomas Markert, to provide advice and expertise to the process,” Rood said (Ge.usembassy.gov, November 30).

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission could, presumably, study the possibility of adapting the German electoral model to the current constitution of Georgia or, at the very least, unequivocally state whether or not the “German” model contradicts the Georgian constitutional system. However, the leadership of the GD has already clearly stated it will not seek the Venice Commission’s expertise on this matter (Civil.ge, November 29).

Opposition politicians believe that, prior to the next round of negotiations, Western partners should take a firmer stance in order to force the GD government to compromise. “During the recent debate in the European Parliament, many deputies criticized the actions of the GD. But this is not enough,” Georgian MP Salome Samadashvili stated. Samadashvili is a member of UNM and served as Georgia’s ambassador to the European Union for several years. She emphasized that the “united opposition” will not back away from its demands: the release of political prisoners arrested during the unrest on June 20, the resignation of the government of Giorgi Gakharia, a new procedure for forming an election administration, and holding early parliamentary elections according to the “German” proportional model. “Until these requirements are met, the opposition will continue its peaceful protests,” Samadashvili underscored (Author’s interview, November 29).

Criticism of the ruling party’s stance on electoral reforms also extends to its former allies. The chairperson of the Social-Democratic Party (part of the GD ruling coalition until spring of 2019), Giorgi Zhorzholiani, told this author that, on November 14, he had voted for the constitutional amendment to switch to “proportional elections” since the German model “contradicts the current constitution of Georgia.” But he was disappointed by the position taken by many Georgian Dream MPs. “The GD is fully responsible for disrupting constitutional reform. The ruling party promised to change the constitution [and] adopt a new model of proportional elections, but it did not fulfill its promise, the Social-Democratic Party leader asserted. Nonetheless, Zhorzholiani warned that any political destabilization would be “destructive for the country,” and the opposition, in his opinion, is trying to radicalize the protests in order to “assert itself” (Author’s interview, November 29).

Independent experts find it difficult to predict how events will continue to unfold. Yet, political consultant Gela Vasadze suggested “the moral and political advantage is now on the side of the opposition.” Vasadze noted that the GD “violated a public promise to move to proportional elections and now impedes a real dialogue with the opposition.” According to the analyst, “[T]he ruling party loses in the eyes of the Georgian public and the West by rejecting compromises,” and, as more time passes, “any compromise will look like surrender” (Author’s interview, November 29).

Two speakers (former and current, respectively) of the Georgian parliament, representing the interests of the GD, Irakli Kobakhidze and Archil Talakvadze, told reporters after negotiations in the Biltmore Hotel that the authorities do not intend to compromise on issues of principle: “We can only accept the opposition’s right to hold protest actions indefinitely, if their actions do not violate the law,” Talakvadze noted not without irony. His predecessor, Kobakhidze, had resigned from the top post in the parliament following the deadly clashes between protesters and police on Rustaveli Avenue, on June 20 (Interpressnews.ge, November 30; see EDM, June 24). Meanwhile, sometimes violent demonstrations persist in various cities across the country (Georgian Journal, December 3), with no immediate end in sight.