TBILISI, DFWatch–Georgia’s former ruling party mobilized several thousand people on Saturday for an anti-Russia themed rally and blamed the government for inaction in the face of what it claimed is impending Russian annexation of two breakaway regions.
The National Movement claims Georgia’s new government’s declared pro-western foreign policy course is a lie and that pro-Russian forces are governing the country.
It has been the party’s style for many years to accuse its political opponents of being pro-Russian, but the rhetoric has had more traction with the Georgian Dream government recently, against the backdrop of resumed trade relations with Russia and perceived inaction as an agreement is being signed by breakaway Abkhazia that will tie the region closer to Russia.
The party was further buoyed by the dismissal of the defense minister and two other ministers resigning and making statements that implied that the government is not sincere in its pro-western foreign policy.
But government officials, including the prime minister and cabinet members, maintained that Georgia has never changed its declared goal of seeking membership in the European Union and NATO.
People started gathering at Roses Square bringing hundreds of posters and flags of Georgia, EU, NATO, Ukraine and some other countries. A massive NATO flag was also carried and placed in front of a crane-mounted TV camera which hovered over the crowd in front of the old parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue.
A large monitor was installed next to the stage where people could see demonstrators moving through Rustaveli and then leaders of UNM addressing people. Also the leader of the National Movement, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, addressed people live from Kiev which was cheered by shouts of ‘Misha’. He is currently charged in several criminal cases in Georgia and would be detained if he entered the country.
The demonstration started with a small orchestra performing the Georgian anthem followed by cheers of ‘no to Russia’ and ‘Vow to Georgia.’
Among the organizers and participants of the rally were parliament members from the National Movement, former government officials and their supporters. They started the rally with a minute’s silence in honor of former economy minister and reformer Kakha Bendukidze, who recently died.
The party’s parliamentary leader Davit Bakradze held a lengthy speech about the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and criticizing the government for attempting to reset relations with Russia from ‘blank page’ as what Russia did with Georgia cannot become a blank page. No-one should remain silent when his homeland is taken away, he continued.
“We lose Abkhazia as soon as the Georgian people is silent and Abkhazia will vanish from our hearts and brains,” he added.
Bakradze underlined that Saturday’s rally was a message to people and the government that other type of political activities are necessary to protect the country and it was also a signal to Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Georgia doesn’t want Russia to ‘swallow’ them.
Giorgi [Goka] Gabashvili said that the government did nothing for the state interests for two years, but only revenge and political games, and has been busy rewarding itself with nepotism.
“Such a kind of government will end in Georgia by a constitutional, peaceful way,” he said.
Ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili appeared on the screen from Kiev, where a similar rally was being held, surrounded by supporters holding Georgian and Ukrainian flags and a picture of Bendukidze. He said excitedly that Saturday’s rally was a ‘parade of honor.’
When the Georgian government remains silent about Russia’s actions, people have spoken up, he said.
“The whole nation must unite before it’s too late and loudly tell Ivanishvili [the former prime minister who created Georgian Dream] that the Georgian people do not share his dream,” Saakashvili said. “Ivanishvili’s Georgia is alone, our Georgia has a whole army of friends. Ivanishvili’s Georgia is bullied and uncool, our Georgia is, what it always used to be – a proud, honorable, special country.”
Similar rallies were held in London, New York, Vilnius, Kiev and few other cities around the world.
The rally ended with the national anthem, after which people peacefully dissolved and went home, leaving a small group of youth to clean up the street.
National Movement members claim there were more than 30,000 people at Saturday’s rally, which lasted three hours and was attended by people from different regions of the country.
Close by, at Rustaveli metro station, a group called the People’s Chamber of the Whole of Georgia held a street protest against the main rally, some of them dressed up in traditional clothing. Their message was that the National Movement has no moral right to demonstrate and claimed that it was aimed at irritating the Georgian people. The group tried to walk toward where the main rally was held, but was stopped by police.
Some of the politicians who were active in street demonstrations before the change of government in 2012 were critical of the rally. The so-called non-parliamentary opposition are parties that were hawkish on foreign policy issues during Saakashvili and demanded a more forceful attempt at bringing back the breakaway regions.
“It was a completely comical form of demonstration today. I think even a child is sure that neither Putin was afraid nor Europe became encouraged by this. If you saw, people were thinly spread at the demonstration,” said Jondi Baghaturia from Kartuli Dasi.
“They had calculated that they wanted to create even more anti-Russian attitude and European theme and that European orientation is the prerogative of the National Movement, that is directly connected to this political force. And of course, the National Movement wanted to look at their own supporters and check how many people would support them and join them,” said Manana Nachkebia from the New Rightists, another of the parties that are not represented in parliament, but were prominent in the street demonstrations a few years ago and many times accused the National Movement of mishandling the issue of the disputed territories.
The governing Georgian Dream coalition, the main target of the rally, said they also are against annexation and occupation.
“I am sure this is a party event for National Movement. This is only to demonstrate that they are alive,” said Eka Beselia, head of parliament’s human rights committee from Georgian Dream.
“Today is a time when there is absolute freedom of assembly and voicing one’s opinion. People on Rustaveli won’t be afraid of being caught and taken somewhere,” she said, a reference to how demonstrators were sometimes detained or violently dispersed during the National Movement’s nearly nine year rule.
Also the vice speaker of parliament and spokeswoman for the governing coalition, Manana Kobakhidze was critical of Saturday’s rally.
“It seems they are willing to fill a niche and they used an issue which is very sensitive; the issues no to annexation and no to occupation. Our aim of course is that we don’t want to allow annexation and occupation, but not with this type of demonstration. That business isn’t settled like that. On the contrary, we saw what happened for nine years by this party.”