“Tens of thousands of people attending [this] demonstration show that rumors of our death have been exaggerated,” the former speaker of the Georgian parliament David Bakradze declared at the April 19 rally of the presidential party United National Movement (UNM), paraphrasing Mark Twain. This was the first public gathering of the UNM after it lost the parliamentary elections in October 2012 (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25972). Bakradze confirmed that the primary aim of the public gathering on Friday was to demonstrate the continuing power and influence of the previous ruling party that is now in the opposition (see EDM, April 10).
“Today’s National Movement is a different party with renewed energy, new blood and a new vision—a party, which has learned from past mistakes,” Bakradze said and added that “at last, Georgia has a strong, constructive, responsible and patriotic opposition” (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25972).
Yet, the opposition party also stressed that the rally was an attempt to force Georgia’s foreign policy orientation back toward the West. “We want to warn Prime Minister [Bidzina] Ivanishvili that we will not tolerate changing the foreign policy course of our country and rejecting the aim of joining NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and the [European Union],” UNM deputy Nugzar Tsiklauri confirmed for Jamestown. The ruling Georgian Dream coalition (GD) rejected this explanation, however. “President Saakashvili’s team is trying to show that they cannot be ignored, while their stated objective to fight against the changes in Georgia’s foreign policy course is only a pretext,” Levan Berdzenishvili, a GD parliamentary deputy, told Jamestown, referring to the statements at the UNM rally that said the main purpose of the gathering was to thwart Georgia’s fall back into Russia’s orbit.
The rally, under the slogan “For Georgia’s European Choice,” gathered 10,000–12,000 participants. Prior to the start of the rally, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” sounded at Rustaveli Boulevard where the protesters gathered; also a speakers’ stand was assembled beforehand. The authorities did everything in order to avoid accusations of impeding the rally. “People have the right to gather peacefully and express their opinion. Our government respects citizens’ rights,” Irakly Melashvili, an aide to Prime Minister Ivanishvili, reassured Jamestown. Indeed, many police officers were present at the rally site, but they did not obstruct the protesters, only ensured public order (Authors’ observations).
In his opening remarks, one of the new leaders of the UNM, Georgy Vashadze, stated that President Mikheil Saakashvili and his associates were starting a new movement for “the liberation of Georgia.” “We are starting a people’s, supra-party movement to unite all pro-Western forces and prevent Ivanishvili from returning the country to the past,” Vashadze exclaimed. The principles of the new movement were specified as “freedom of the united Georgian state, personal and economic liberties, a new vision of Georgia’s role in globalized world and “a principled position in relations with Russia” (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25972; Authors’ observations).
General Secretary of the UNM Vano Merabishvili was self-critical, but full of optimism. “We [the UNM] learn from our own mistakes. For example, we failed to resolve the problem of unemployment. But from this day on, the National Movement’s major task will be to maintain jobs for those who already have them and to force the government to create new jobs; and if it fails to do so, we will replace the government, we will come to power and our major goal will be to have not a single unemployed person in Georgia,” Merabishvili promised (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25972; Authors’ observations).
The idea of changing the government sounded in other leaders’ statements, too. “We cannot simply wait for another four years until the next elections, when we see that the government does not make good on its promises,” deputy Akaki Bobokhidze warned. However, the UNM parliamentarian specified that he meant his party’s active participation in the presidential elections in October 2013 and municipal elections in 2014 (Authors’ observations).
Tbilisi Mayor, Gigi Ugulava, told the participants of the gathering that the April 19 rally marked “the birth of a new opposition, a new national movement and a new European Georgia” (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25972).
All speakers emphasized the link between retaining a pro-Western orientation of the country, continuing the reforms and resolving social problems.
President Saakashvili attended the rally at its height. He walked through the crowd, shaking hands and climbed to the speaker’s stand. Yet, the leader of the UNM did not speak immediately, but only at the closing of the event. As was expected, Saakashvili commented on the statements by the former head of the interior ministry’s Department for Constitutional Security, Dato Akhalaya, and his press-secretary Marika Verushvili, as well as some deputies that distanced themselves from the UNM. “Yes, the government bought some lawmakers, but these people and this society [referring to the demonstrators] are not for sale; society is what matters in Georgia and not those few traitors and rats [sic] who have run away,” Saakashvili proclaimed, rebuking those parliamentary deputies who had switched sides. He was especially critical of the former speaker of the parliament and his political ally at the time of the Rose Revolution, Nino Burjanadze. Saakashvili accused her of carrying out the Kremlin’s orders. “Burjanadze is “a friend of the Kremlin” and the [Ivanishvili] government is “a semi-friend of the Kremlin,” the president declared. “The government said our opposition should be Nino Burjanadze, who is a friend of the Kremlin, because the government wants the people to make a choice only between the bad and the worse. I want to tell them that the Georgian people will make a choice not between traitors and semi-traitors [sic], but between patriots and greater patriots. If we choose indignity, we will end up with the full occupation of the country. If we choose dignity, we will liberate the whole country” Saakashvili proclaimed at the rally (http://frontnews.ge/index.php?action=news_read&npid=18126&lang=eng).
At the end of the rally, Vano Merabishvili announced that support groups for the new “Liberation Movement,” would be set up across the country, in every region, city and village. Merabishvili is likely to become the UNM’s candidate for the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for October 2013. “We are obliged to force the government to fulfill its promises; if they [the ruling GD coalition] do not fulfill their promises, we should win the elections and come to power,” Merabishvili said (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25972).