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Unrest in Georgia: How Russian factor brought people to the streets

Author : Georgiy Kuhaleyshvili

The government of Georgia used force against its own people without good reason. Georgian society, especially veterans, refugees and families who have lost loved ones in hostilities with Russia and the separatists, will not forgive the current government
22:30, 25 June 2019

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Five days ago, mass protests took place in Tbilisi. Georgians demanded the resignation of Interior Minister Georgy Gakharia, head of the state security service Vakhtang Gomelauri, and criticized founder of the ruling party Georgian Dream, Russian-Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili for interfering in political processes. The demonstrations escalated into fierce clashes with police special forces in the evening of June 20. The people stormed the parliament, damaged the office of the Georgian Dream party. 160 protesters and 80 law enforcement officers were injured. The protests continued on the evening of June 21. They were led by the opposition United National Movement party, founded by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The driving force behind the protests was youth and students. The chairman of the Georgian parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, resigned.

Such events began after a scandal in the Georgian parliament, where the meeting of the 26th General Session of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy was held on the morning of June 20 with the participation of Russian MPs and legislators from other member countries. The Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy was established in 1993 on the initiative of the Greek Parliament, and 25 countries of the world, including Ukraine, participate in it. The competence of this organization includes assistance in adopting laws in the interests of the Orthodox countries by the parliaments of the participating countries, enhancing dialogue between churches and protecting spiritual values. The President of the Assembly is the Communist Party MP Sergei Gavrilov. Having broken the protocol, the Russian Communist settled in the chair of the Georgian Parliament’s Speaker and announced the beginning of the meeting. In protest, MPs of the Georgian opposition parties European Georgia and United National Movement blocked the podium during the break, and Ambassador of Ukraine Igor Dolgov left parliament. The meeting had to be terminated early. But the trick of Gavrilov is just the tip of the iceberg of reasons for dissatisfaction of Georgian society with the current government.

Related: Georgia protests: Opposition voices out three major demands

Apostle of Russian aggression

For some reason, Russia did not take into account the fact that sending Gavrilov to the Georgian parliament was a deliberately risky step. Georgian society is united in the desire to restore the territorial integrity of their country, which Russia has violated. In the early 1990s, Moscow provoked armed conflicts in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Kremlin-sponsored socio-political movements of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatists. Russian mercenaries and volunteers fought on their side, including Cossacks and people from the North Caucasus. Armed conflicts were accompanied by ethnic cleansing and the outflow of refugees. Over 300 000 Georgians were forced to leave their homes in Abkhazia, they were scattered across different countries of the world. MP Gavrilov voted for the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Russian Parliament after the Russian aggression in August 2008. The Communists are in favor of the Russian military presence on the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. No wonder some of the protesters accused Gavrilov of participating in the 2008 conflict. Although he claims that he did not take part in the hostilities.

Gavrilov maintains ties with separatist formations in the post-Soviet space, through which Russia keeps the former Soviet republics in the orbit of its influence. He is the coordinator of the political group on relations with the Supreme Council of the unrecognized Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic in the territory of Moldova. The Russian MP had a hand in the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In March 2014, Gavrilov visited the annexed Crimea as part of a delegation of Russian Communists and discussed prospects for cooperation with the city authorities of Sevastopol. In February 2019, he proposed recognizing the “LNR” and “DNR” republics and giving Russian citizenship to local residents through the simplified procedure.

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MPs from the United National Movement opposition party, which was in power in Georgia at the time of Russia's recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence, took Gavrilov’s presence and his familiar behavior as a spit in the face of the Georgian people. It seems that the Georgian government adapts to the interests of Russia and closes its eyes to its aggressive policy, allowing politicians like Gavrilov to speak in parliament. Russia's task is to keep Georgia and the South Caucasus in the orbit of its influence. Judging by the rhetoric and actions of the Georgian authorities, they do not resist.

Sins of the Georgian Dream

Georgians are outraged by the fact that the government is closing its eyes to systematic incidents and provocations in the area of the demarcation line with South Ossetia. From 2008 to 2018, separatists moved the line of demarcation between South Ossetia and Georgia 50 times. In November 2018, they moved it 50 meters into the Georgian-controlled territory. In March 2019, armed people in masks from South Ossetia penetrated the territory of the Georgian village of Khurvaleti. Criminals periodically kidnap Georgian citizens in settlements near South Ossetia for the purpose of subsequent ransom.

Georgian authorities are shifting responsibility for problems with territorial integrity onto the shoulders of their political opponents. Last year, during the election campaign, incumbent Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili stated that in August 2008, former President Mikheil Saakashvili had launched a war against Russia. She called Abkhazia and South Ossetia "political gangrene" for Georgia. Then her candidacy was supported by the Georgian Dream. Her careless statement disagrees with reality since South Ossetia is not part of Russia. The operation to restore the constitutional order in South Ossetia was carried out in response to the separatists’ shelling and was a purely internal issue of Georgia. There was no aggression against Russia.

Related: Georgian airlines to be banned from flying to Russia since July 8


Georgian Dream adheres to a compliant position in relations with Russia, which is not even going to return Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia. Dreamers restored cooperation in trade and tourism with Russia. Last year, 1.2 million Russian tourists visited Georgian cities. Tourist traffic rose by 30%. Among the wealthy Russians, it became popular to acquire real estate in Georgia, where prices are lower than in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Declaring the Euro-Atlantic vector of development, the Georgian Dream promotes the growth of Russia's information influence in Georgia. The Russian authorities are trying to manipulate the religious beliefs of the people of Georgia, to promote the stereotype that supposedly the Georgian and Russian people have much in common, they are spiritually close thanks to Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy became the state religion of Georgia approximately in 327 year under Tsar Mirian the Third, long before the baptism of Russia in 988. There is a Georgian version of the Russian Internet publication Sputnik, which provides information in a favorable perspective for the Kremlin. Over 44.5 thousand users have subscribed to Sputnik Georgia on Facebook.

The anger of the Georgian people spurs dissatisfaction with the existing socio-economic situation in the country. According to the Georgian economist Gochi Tutberidze, the majority of the population does not feel an increase in their well-being, and it will take more than a decade for Georgia to reach the level of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in terms of economic development. About 20% of the population in Georgia live below the poverty line. The gap between rich and poor is growing. The authorities still have not contributed to the solution of the housing problem for Georgian refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Last June, refugees who could not get an apartment made a protest in Zugdidi.

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In Georgia, it is difficult to do business and earn decent money, since the country's market is rather narrow and the competition is too high. According to Finance Minister Ivane Machavariani, unemployment in Georgia in 2018 was 12.2% and reached a historical minimum. However, about 1 million people are self-employed and do not have a stable income. Labor migration to Turkey, Europe, the USA and Canada is practiced. Georgians are not satisfied with the decline in the efficiency of law enforcement and the increase in crime.

The role of the Georgian opposition

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the situation in Georgia "Russophobic provocation." Chairman of the Council of International Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev believes that the Georgian opposition allegedly wants to "make war with Russia" and found a reason to attack the authorities. Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin claims that the opposition used a forum uniting Orthodox countries to splash out their anti-Russian sentiments. Well, the MP Gavrilov, whom the protesters poured water on, said that a coup attempt had taken place in Georgia. For that matter, the anti-government protests in Georgia in November 2007, in which human rights activist and later a member of the Georgian Dream party Sozar Subari and Salome Zurabishvili took part, could be called a provocation.

It is worth noting that in any country of the world opposition parties adapt to the mood of society in order to gain confidence. Now the opposition party United National Movement of Grigol Vashadze has joined the protesters. They require the refusal of a mixed majority-proportional election system. The opposition is trying to form an organized protest movement, like French "yellow vests", out of a spontaneous popular uprising, in order to ultimately secure early parliamentary elections. Saakashvili called on the Georgian opposition to unite and remove the Georgian Dream party from power by peaceful means.

Related: More than 30 Georgian journalists injured at rally in Tbilisi

The incident in the Georgian parliament is a big fat spot on the reputation of the “dreamers” and Ivanishvili. The government of Georgia used force against its own people without good reason. Georgian society, especially veterans, refugees and families who have lost loved ones in hostilities with Russia and the separatists, will not forgive the current government for Gavrilov’s visit. In order to somehow improve its reputation, Zurabishvili said that the Orthodox Union of Russia and Georgia is impossible because of the occupied territories. Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze criticized the Russian MP.

Related: Georgian protesters storm Parliament in Tbilisi


However, this is not the first anti-government speech in Georgia in recent years. The United National Movement organized protests last year, but it was not possible to achieve early parliamentary elections. The weak point of the opposition is the lack of serious support from the security forces. Otherwise, the authorities would refrain from giving the order to disperse the protests in order to avoid the help of law enforcement on the side of the opposition. “Dreamers” and Ivanishvili are not going to give power to the opposition. The army officers show ambiguous attitude to the current government. In November 2018, the former head of the Georgian Armed Forces General Staff, General Devi Chankotadze, publicly criticized Zurabishvili’s statements for her accusations of the Georgian authorities in the armed conflict in August 2008. At the same time, the retired general was condemned by the Georgian Ministry of Defense and urged not to mislead the public.

Related: Ukraine, Georgia condemns Russia's delegation return to PACE

Related: Georgia's network of cinema theaters suspends showing films in Russian language

 

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