Turmoil in Georgia

Turmoil in Georgia

On June 20, protests objecting to a delegation visit by members of the Russian Duma broke out in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. The Russian delegation took place under the auspices of the inter-parliamentary Orthodox forum hosted by the Georgian Dream government. The protesters expressed their anger towards Sergei Gavrilov, a Russian MP and leader of the Communist Party leader, because he sat in the Georgian parliament speaker’s chair while addressing the council of parliamentarians from predominantly Orthodox Christian countries. The peaceful protest eventually turned violent when the crowd attempted to break into the parliament. The Russian delegation was forced to flee the building, and riot police resorted to the use of brutal force against the protesters. Over 300 individuals were detained, and more than 200 people were hospitalized due to the injuries sustained from rubber bullets and tear gas used by the police.

The Georgian Dream government officials rejected reports of police brutality, all while special forces chased down protesters late into the night, beating and arresting them. The speaker of the parliament eventually resigned, but the protests resumed on June 21. Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze and his team claim that the unrest was organized by opposition parties that were trying to provoke chaos and undermine the government. Minister of Interior Giorgi Gakharia issued a statement, warning that “everyone who took part in organizing the violent protests will be brutally punished in the nearest future.”

Upon his return to Russia, MP Gavrilov said that radicals had occupied the Georgian parliament, but Georgia and Russia will remain connected by their Orthodox ties. Furthermore, he has insisted that Russia must get involved in the investigation of the incident: “We do not interfere in the internal affairs of Georgia and attempts to destabilize the government, but aggressive and hostile actions against Russia, of course, should be investigated.” According to Gavrilov, who is particularly unpopular in Tbilisi due to his significant role in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, this was a coup attempt by extremists in order to block the process of building good neighborly ties between Russia and Georgia, and undermine the “respect between our peoples and our churches”. On June 21, President Putin’s official website published a statement regarding the situation in Georgia, calling the incident a “Russophobic provocation against Russian parliamentarians provoked by extremist elements.” The statement advises the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “to warn Russian citizens, including tourists traveling or in Georgia, about the possible danger sway from extremists.”

The government’s refusal to take responsibility for the violent turn has turned the crowd’s attention from Russia to the Georgian Dream government itself.

One of the protesters, Gela Gelashvili, summed up the crowd’s sentiments in his speech on June 21:

We tolerated hunger, we tolerated darkness, we tolerated a lot of things, but the Georgian nation never tolerates being robbed of its dignity. Yesterday our dignity was attacked, today we will start the process of restoring it, and along with that process, we begin the process of Georgian Dream’s demise! Yesterday I saw dozens of our friends, sisters, and brothers, who were injured, but I have not seen a single political leader who was harmed. I implore each one of them to have the bravery to join us, make remarks on this stage, and stand with us until the end. We will welcome their support. Otherwise we will send them all to the political garbage dump, alongside Bidzina Ivanishvili. Cheers to Georgia!

As the second day of protests comes to close, questions abound. What should the Georgian government do to bring the unrest to a peaceful resolution? What can and should the international community, particularly the United States and Europe, do to help restore peace and stability in Georgia?

(Source: George Melashvili/WikiMedia Commons)

(Source: George Melashvili/WikiMedia Commons)

Miro Popkhadze is a Washington, D.C.-based Eurasia analyst and FPRI contributor at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His research focuses on Black Sea/ Caucasus security and defense issues.

While the protests were triggered by the arrival of the Russian delegation in Georgia, the underlying sense of public disillusionment with the overall political environment in Georgia played an important role. Unlike what the GD leaders insist, this is not a politically-motivated, or opposition-led protest; this is a public outcry against the political establishment, against all political parties and leaders, and particularly against the ruling coalition. It is clear that the Georgian public is ready for change. If we take into account the fact that ruling parties in Georgia tend to rule for two electoral cycles before being toppled (Shevardnadze, UNM, now GD), we can expect serious changes to the political system in the aftermath of these uprisings. Despite the fact that the Kremlin called the protesters “radical political groups,” it is clear that this wave is not radical, nor political.

The GD should listen to the protesters’ demands. They should schedule early parliamentary elections—by proportional method, which will give a fair chance to all political hopefuls, and satisfy society’s demand for a more fair political system. Otherwise, the situation will continue to escalate and there is a danger that the current government will have a hard time regaining legitimacy without committing to a package of institutional fixes. The U.S. should insist on a peaceful dialogue between the two sides, and make sure Russia is not given an opportunity to hijack the situation and create further chaos. The West should facilitate a dialogue between the two sides. It is in Russia’s interests to see a destabilized Georgia, but this would not serve the West’s strategic interests in the region.

Elene Melikishvili is a London-based political scientist, researching security and politics of the South Caucasus, and a contributor at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The government must listen to the people. We all know that this crisis has been in the making for a while, since the Georgian Dream team abandoned political pluralism and took on the role of the sole guardian of Georgia. The GD political leaders must drop the anti-UNM rhetoric and take these dissenting voices seriously. A dialogue with society has to become the main priority. The recent events have demonstrated that the attempt to transform Georgia into a post-modern autocracy will fail spectacularly. The government has to negotiate, or it has to go. Georgia’s leaders have the choice today, but it could slip away quickly. 

Another elephant in the room is Russia. Yesterday’s events have reminded us about threat of Russian hybrid attacks against Georgia. The West must acknowledge the hidden agenda of Moscow in this attempt to destabilize Georgia and bring chaos to the region. Russia has weaponized religion and used it to attack the Georgian political system and democracy.

Levan Asatiani is a human rights lawyer who works on Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. He is a Senior Campaigner at Amnesty International.

There has been some speculation about the use of force against the protesters—whether it was justified or not, and whether the use of force was proportional. On June 20, the police fired rubber bullets indiscriminately into the crowd. Reports of erratic firing are confirmed by video footage. Rubber bullets can cause serious injuries and should never be used indiscriminately to disperse crowds. Police have the duty to protect public order and respond to violence, but their response must be necessary and proportionate. The disturbing scenes in Tbilisi this morning show a total failure to distinguish between the few violent protestors and the peaceful majority. The heavy-handed police approach has resulted in scores of injuries, including at least 31 journalists. Most of them were hurt by rubber bullets, despite being identifiable as journalists as they tried to report on the protests. The international community must call for a prompt, thorough, and independent investigation into these events. As the protests continue, it’s essential that police are instructed to exercise restraint and respect the right to peaceful freedom of expression.

Luis Navarro is a Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Last night, we saw the culmination of GD oscillation between incompetence and accommodation of Russia’s soft power and Bidzina Ivanishvili’s conflation of public outcry with political opposition. It is hard to imagine a meaningful government response given its insistence on keeping up the current facade of government accountability.

The U.S. government has already acquiesced to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s demands regarding the U.S. diplomatic mission to Georgia by allowing Ivanishvili to veto Bridget Brink’s candidacy as the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia. This has left our diplomatic mission handicapped by its lack of depth and latitude to engage with the Georgian Dream on domestic matters, beyond reaffirming talking points. The United States must immediately respond by tying future U.S. aid to the GD government’s commitment to electoral reforms in time for the 2020 election, as well as its willingness to address election monitoring concerns.