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

Georgians Form Human Chain to Defy Russia

President’s opponents as well as supporters turn out to oppose Russian incursion.
By Nana Kurashvili
Would you ever have thought that in the 21st century, in 2008, we would have to go out into streets again to stand up for our independence? I thought all that was history, but I was wrong.”

Meri, a 58-year-old history teacher, spoke to IWPR as she joined crowds of people on Melikishvili Avenue waiting to form a human chain across the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

The human chain was part of a coordinated protest action on September 1 which brought hundreds of thousands of Georgians out into the streets to express their concern at Russia’s military intervention in their country.

The biggest demonstration was in Tbilisi, but large crowds also massed in the western port city of Poti, where Russian troops are still present in defiance of a ceasefire agreement.

Opposition politicians temporarily abandoned their feud with President Mikheil Saakashvili to take part.

Half an hour before the human chain was due to form, Melikashvili Street was already full of people.

As they waited, Meri and those around her began a lively discussion about recent events and expressing how they felt about the war with Russia.

“Putin hates us,” asserted one man. “His cheekbones tense up when he talks about Georgia. Maybe a Georgian stole his girlfriend when he was a boy.”

This drew laughs from his neighbours, although one older protester retorted irritably, “It isn’t a girl but Saakashvili who is the problem – Putin hates him. They obviously told him that Saakashvili called him ‘Lilliputin’. It’s like a kindergarten. Our Misha [Saakashvili’s nickname] has overplayed his hand.”

“Oh, come off it,” objected someone else. “[Former Georgian president Eduard] Shevardnadze didn’t call Putin ‘Lilliputin’, but when he was in power they still bombed us, forced us to get [Russian] visas, handed out passports in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and called us terrorists.”

“That’s right, it doesn’t matter what you say to Russia,” agreed Meri. “Surely history has taught us that.”

Despite the crowd’s strong sense of solidarity in the face of the Russian incursion, not everyone there was an uncritical supporter of President Saakashvili.

“Misha is getting his payback for November 7,” said an elderly man, recalling events in Tbilisi last year when riot police dispersed opposition demonstrators with violence. “He was a real killer then; he drove us away with truncheons. And now he calls for unity. People like you voted for Saakashvili, and now I have to stand on the street to defend my country from the Russian occupiers.”

Another voice chimed in, “That’s right. He shouldn’t have given in to Putin’s provocation. In one day he destroyed a country that it had taken years to put right.”

At this, someone in the crowd jumped to the president’s defence, saying, “So you admit the country had been put right? Thank God you admitted that. Thank you for admitting that Saakashvili built a country, he built a state.”

Meri intervened in the dispute, saying, “Calm down – let’s hold hands, the demonstration’s about to start. We can always find time to discuss Saakashvili but now we have to defend him in front of Putin and Russia. We have to defend the country and stand together.”

Saakashvili’s elderly critic continued his attack, saying, “We should have formed this kind of chain after the murder of [banker Sandro] Girgvliani [in 2006, amid allegations of a cover-up], after they attacked [opposition television station] Imedi on November 7, and after they shut down the political talk-shows and independent television.”

Despite his objections, the man nonetheless stretched out his hand to Meri.

The “living chain” was widely advertised several days in advance as a call for all Georgians to join hands in solidarity.

On the afternoon of September, the streets of central Tbilisi filled with people carrying Georgian flags and banners saying “Stop Russia”. Cars drove around making a deafening noise as they honked their horns.

“I don’t like this – are we supposed to be celebrating?” complained one elderly woman. “Our young people aren’t serious, they’re making a holiday out of it.”

In the end, there were so many people that it was impossible for everyone to take part in the human chain.

“Absolutely all of my friends are taking part in the demonstration,” said 28-year-old Eka, who works in a bank.

“I came to protest against Russian aggression and so that the world can see that Georgia is an independent country and that we have the right to build our state however we want. And that means having the right to support Saakashvili, because it’s not for Putin to decide who should be president here.”

Nino Gabrichidze was among those who stayed at home and watched the demonstration on television.

“I didn’t go because Saakashvili politicised it,” she explained. “This is a demonstration in support of him. I understand that a lot of people are standing there to protest against Moscow’s aggression, and I support them. But I will never stand alongside Saakashvili.”

The protesters ranged in age from Andro, a three-month-old baby wearing a T-shirt saying “Stop Russia”, and 88-year-old Petr, whose walking-stick was topped with a Georgian flag, stuck there by a five-year-old great-grandson.

Petr said he had been about the same age as Andro back in 1921, when the Red Army invaded Georgia and Georgian independence was crushed by the Bolsheviks.

“Of course, Andro’s life will be happier than mine,” he said. “He is a true citizen of our country and he has a real guarantee of that. What about us? We had no right to anything – we didn’t have any rights.”

Nana Kurashvili is a journalist with Imedi television in Tbilisi.

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