Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian Street Protesters Ponder Next Move

They considers new tactics after having little to show for months of demos.
By Tea Topuria
Georgia’s opposition, worn out by four months of mass protests that failed to force the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili, is looking for a new strategy.



For much of the spring and summer, opposition activists paralysed Tbilisi, blockading the parliament building and lining the main street with tents painted to look like prison cells. They consistently refused to compromise with Saakashvili, saying they would only be satisfied by him stepping down.



“These multi-month protests ended with nothing. I am not in agreement with the opinion that the authorities won. This isn’t the case. We are entering autumn with the same strength as we went into spring,” said David Usupashvili, leader of the Republican Party and one of the heads of the opposition Alliance for Georgia.



But, having said that, he confirmed opposition leaders were now prepared to enter into dialogue with the government, and would not rely on public pressure alone to achieve results.



“Today it would be a big mistake to confine ourselves to opposition street protests. We will challenge the authorities in any way we can: dialogue, debates, rhetoric, policy initiatives and, of course, protests,” he said.



Saakashvili says that his government’s tolerance of the months of protests is proof that Georgia is actually a democratic country, and that he is not the dictator his opponents accuse him of being, but Usupashvili insists the opposition was not given the same access to airtime or the same resources as the government.



“In Georgia there is basically no proper broadcast media. The central television stations are just a mouthpiece for the authorities. The opposition is forced to resort to primitive methods, like handing out pamphlets,” he said.



“There is the radio, the press, the internet, mobile phones… If you try, your voice can reach the people. But it is of course very hard when the three monsters work against you,” he added, referring to the three main television stations Rustavi-2, Imedi and Public Broadcasting.



Usupashvili said it had become common practice for the authorities to plant illegal substances or weapons on activists they wished to detain, which was making the opposition’s work extremely difficult.



“For example, nine Republican Party activists were detained not long ago and accused of possession of narcotics. Five of them were imprisoned, with the highest sentence six years, and the rest were fined,” he said.



“There are other forms of pressure. We wanted to hold a meeting in Signagi [in eastern Georgia]. Three days earlier, police officers came to the houses of a few members of the party and announced that they were looking for weapons. They weren’t really looking for anything, they just looked at everything and left. It was attempted intimidation.”



He also accused the government of intimidating state employees who support the opposition, by trying to force them to follow Saakashvili’s line.



“The authorities, working with the organs of local government and representatives of the housing cooperatives, are drawing up the electoral lists and removing ‘undesirable’ voters,” he said.



“Not long ago we had a meeting with the population in the Samegrelo region. The night before the meeting the owner of the hall, where it was supposed to happen, refused to rent it to us. But this did not help them. We said that if they didn’t let us into the building, we would take to the streets with megaphones.”



Such claims are, however, mocked by Saakashvili supporters like Akaki Minashvili, chairman of the parliamentary foreign relations committee.



“There is no pressure being put on the opposition. It is strange that that they talk about this pressure live on television, or at street protests. The parliamentary forum is open to the opposition, so is the media, including the main television channels. To witness this, you just need to turn on the television,” he said.



“As for these accusations that the authorities are putting pressure on politically active people and participants in protests, I want to say that political activity does not grant people immunity. If a political activist attacks a policeman, or wounds his friend at a party, or commits another crime, he will answer before a court. This affects both the opposition and the supporters of the ruling party.”



But such claims by the government that it acts only within the law have been seriously undermined in recent months. This summer, the International Federation for Human Rights, FIDH, accused the Georgian authorities of holding political prisoners and demanded their release.



International organisations have not accused the country of holding such people – unlike neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan - but FIDH investigators came to their conclusions after meeting the families of inmates and their lawyers, and studying court documents.



“These cases mainly demonstrate how some political opponents, funders of the political opposition and influential individuals linked to the opposition are arrested and detained after being sentenced in totally - or partially - fabricated judicial cases,” FIDH said.



Usupashvili said the opposition movements had drawn up specific policies, and were now ready to discuss them with the government at any time.



“There was not just one demand at the protests that started in April. There was an appeal to the government, made up of 12 or 13 points. We said then, ‘Take any point and we can start talks about it.’ The authorities suggested early local elections, although you could not call them early since they had to happen in November of next year anyway,” he said.



“We are prepared to take part in any elections, providing they are actually elections and not just another farce. And to stop them being a farce, we need to weaken the repressive machine, and also stop the authorities using administrative resources in their favour… The opposition’s demand that Saakashvili resigns remains, in as far as he is not managing to lead the country and has permanently lost his senses.”



But some analysts said the opposition was still a long way away from expressing the real concerns of the people. Andro Barnov, a political analyst, said it would be better off organising itself and getting ready for elections than in setting unrealistic goals.



“Believe me, the people don’t much care if Saakashvili is good or bad. Their problems are much more real, like the price of petrol, or the problems of the grape harvest. The opposition should work in this direction,” he said.



He said that the opposition had a long way to go before it was a real alternative to the authorities, and that it should abandon the headline-grabbing demands that have dominated its tactics this year.



“They are taking a step to nowhere,” he said.



Tea Topuria is a freelance journalist.