Georgia: Government uses force to restore order, pulls plug on TV broadcaster
|Publication Date||7 November 2007|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Georgia: Government uses force to restore order, pulls plug on TV broadcaster, 7 November 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473da393c.html [accessed 20 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Text by Molly Corso; Photos by Alexander Klimchuk, Sophia Mizante and Molly Corso: 11/07/07
The Georgian government forcibly broke up protests in Tbilisi on November 7 after five days of anti-government demonstrations. While there are no known casualties, over 200 people have sought medical treatment after Special Forces fired tear gas and used water cannons on crowds in downtown Tbilisi and at an impromptu alternative protest site. Amid government appeals for calm, officials also moved to take a pro-opposition television station off the air.
In a televised speech, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili emphasized that Georgia respects the democratic right to protest, and blamed Moscow for the developing crisis.
Less than two hours after his statements, the pro-opposition television station Imedi, owned by News Corp., was closed by Special Forces as its nightly news broadcast was in progress. The station was attacked earlier in the day by ruling National Movement Party parliamentary majority leader Maia Nadiradze for inciting protesters.
In remarks that echoed earlier accusations by government supporters, the president claimed that an "alternative government" has been set up in Moscow, and that plans exist to install that government in Georgia by the end of the year.
"A machine of lies is working against us. That machine of lies was born in a country very close to us ... this situation was born [there] ... they are trying to destroy us," he told viewers.
The Georgian parliament's human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, denounced the Saakashvili administration's actions. "It has been established today that we are Lukashenko's Belarus, and not a beacon of democracy," Subari was quoted as saying by the Civil Georgia website.
In an appeal for calm, Saakashvili raised memories of Georgia's turbulent post-independence period and civil war. "We all remember '92," he said, referring to a time when parts of downtown Tbilisi were left in ruins following civil strife. "We will not allow this to repeat itself."
Saakashvili called for protesters to return home, saying that "[w]e cannot allow huge clashes and riots" that "threaten our future." Police action against protesters was "civilized," he asserted, though added that "my heart hurts that violence was used against the protesters – and it was used in several places."
Government officials have defended the use of force, claiming the 10-party opposition movement is infiltrated with Russian agents and engaged in "grave crimes." The Georgian ambassador to Russia, Irakli Chubinishvili, was called back to Tbilisi on November 7 "for consultations" in connection with the protests, according to Georgian media reports.
On the afternoon of November 7, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs released for television broadcast several alleged audio and video recordings of conversations and meetings between opposition leaders and alleged Russian intelligence service representatives in Tbilisi. Opposition leaders featured on the tapes included Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, Republican Party parliamentarian Levan Berdzenishvili, former State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, and Tsotne Gamsakhurdia, brother of Freedom Party leader Konstantin Gamsakhurdia.
The telephone conversations, starting in 2005, mostly touch on meeting times and information that is publicly available. One conversation with Berdzenishvili covers parliament's discussion of Georgia leaving the Commonwealth of Independent States; a second with Natelashvili covers a visit of Open Society Institute founder George Soros to Tbilisi. [EurasiaNet.org is financed by the Open Society Institute's Central Eurasia Project.]
Government supporters maintain that the conversations prove Moscow's interest in fostering instability in Georgia via the opposition protests. "Everyone has seen that the large part of our opposition is cooperating with our enemy," Givi Targamadze, a Member of Parliament and chairman of the parliamentary committee for defense and security, said at a press conference on November 7. "These traitors were using ordinary people [protesters] for their dirty goals."
However, members of the opposition and their supporters have denied any connection with Russia or the Russian intelligence services. "I am not going to comment on these allegations," Khaindrava told EurasiaNet. "When a government poisons its own people ... there is no need for comment."
Khaindrava was briefly detained by police early November 7 after he resisted an effort to push protesters from their position in front of the parliament. Demonstrators had been protesting in front of parliament since November 2 in an effort to force the government to hold early parliamentary elections in the spring of 2008, among other demands. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. While the protests started peacefully, the situation deteriorated as the government steadfastly refused to compromise on the election date. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Speaking with reporters late November 7, Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze said that her offer of dialogue with the opposition had not yet been accepted. Pro-Saakashvili demonstrators, chanting "Misha!," have meanwhile gathered in front of parliament.
Opposition coalition leaders could not be reached for comment.
Tensions between the two sides reached the boiling point when police removed a few dozen protesters left in front of parliament after organizers announced they planned to erect a "tent city" at the site.
"[I]t [the break up of the protest] is in the interest of each of our citizens, their legitimate wish that the city, as well as the country, will never again turn into a town of camps, car wheels and sleeping bags," Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava told reporters. "Tbilisi will not return to the 1990s, when this kind of mayhem and chaos could be allowed."
However, protesters resisted, closing the city's central Rustaveli Avenue after clashing with police later in the morning. By early afternoon, Special Forces were deployed at the parliament and began forcibly pushing back a growing crowd of protesters and onlookers with tear gas and water cannons. After an extended push-and-pull that involved the beating of some demonstrators and bystanders, police regained control of the area in front of parliament.
Health Minister Davit Tkeshelashvili stated that over 200 people sought medical attention at local hospitals. Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli defended the decision to use tear gas and water cannons, commenting that they are measures "usually used in Western countries."
As the government worked to break up the demonstrations on Rustaveli Avenue, opposition leaders regrouped at Rike, a historic square less than ten miles from the parliament. Riot police, however, used tear gas to disperse the hundreds of protesters gathered there; television footage from the square showed some protesters being taken away by ambulance while others started to throw rocks at the police.
Meanwhile, a similar scene unfolded in front of a subsequent protest site, outside of Tbilisi's Metekhi Church, with riot and regular police moving in to fire tear gas and chase stone-throwing demonstrators. Protesters, made up largely of young men, chased some riot police down a roadway, while scores of others gathered on a hillside overlooking the Mtkvari River.
Late on November 7, protesters regrouped in front of the nearby Tsameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral. Television footage from the site showed priests interceding with riot police, as some scattered groups of demonstrators gathered nearby. Members of former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili's United Movement for Georgia Party gave interviews from the church while lighting candles.
Patriarch Ilia II had earlier called for calm, saying that the Georgian Orthodox Church was ready to act as a mediator between the government and opposition.
Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Alexander Klimchuk and Sophia Mizante are freelance photographers based in Tbilisi.