(DF Watch.)

TBILISI, DFWatch–Protesters continue to occupy a building at Tbilisi State University, demanding a transparent process for electing the university’s management amid allegations of interference by the State Security Agency.

On the second day of protest, students of Ilia State University (ISU), in an expression of solidarity, joined the students of Tbilisi State University (TSU), who have been occupying the university building since Thursday evening. Several lecturers have also joined the protesters.

The protest was sparked by Giorgi Gaprindashvili’s candidacy for the post of university chancellor — the second most important office after the rector.

The protesters argue that Gaprindashvili has been compromised because of an incident in 2011, when members of the tvitmmartveloba (‘student government’), which Mr Gaprindashvili at the time was a member of, physically assaulted members of the student group Targmne (‘Translate’), after which he allegedly denied that the incident had taken place.

On Monday March 7, TSU students staged a separate protest against the tvitmmartveloba’s privileges and the university’s spending policies.

In a televised statement, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili called on Gaprindashvili to withdraw his candidacy.

“Our government’s priority is to ensure the independence of the governance of higher educational institutions. Given certain doubts about the government’s possible interference [in the process of electing university chancellor], I urge rector of Tbilisi State University, Vladimer Papava to ensure that the electoral process is independent and transparent. I’m asking members of the Council who support Giorgi Gaprindashvili’s candidacy, as well as Giorgi Gaprindashvili himself, to take into account the existing conflict with students and to withdraw his candidacy,” Kvirikashvili said.

The prime minister’s statement about the ‘government’s interference’ is connected to the fact that Papava confirmed the existence of so-called ODRs affiliated with the Ministry of Internal Affairs at Tbilisi State University, which raises questions about the degree of Georgian universities’ autonomy from the government.

ODR is a Russian acronym meaning ‘active reserve officer’. The term refers to employees of state security agencies, such as the KGB, who in the Soviet times infiltrated institutions such as political parties, business enterprises, media and universities.

Transparency International Georgia issued a statement, in which it condemned the fact that the government had never abolished ODRs. It also pointed out that, despite the fact that Mr Papava admitted it, the State Security Service of Georgia denied the presence of ODRs at TSU.

The issue gave rise to slogan ‘Autonomy for Universities’, which was one of the main slogans heard during the protests, along with ‘Freedom, Solidarity, Equality’.

Some activists also claimed that TSU’s autonomy was violated when a group of religious fundamentalists managed to prevent an LGBT rights conference from being held at TSU in February.

The protesters say that they won’t leave the university building unless Giorgi Gaprindashvili withdraws his candidacy.

They also demand an investigation into the existence of ODRs at universities, a reform of the process of electing university chancellor, and ending tvitmmartveloba’s privileges and reducing its administrative powers.

Friday Davit Berdzenishvili from the Republican Party came at TSU to meet and speak with students, but they didn’t wish to talk with him. They explained that they don’t want their protest to become partisan and proposed to Berdzenishvili that if he wants to support he can use his mandate as of MP and raise issues of university at parliament. Berdzenishvili said he didn’t come to gains political points but to support them.

“I used to protect honor of this university when I was of your age. They took me and arrested me in Soviet period. So let’s not compete,” he said.

Rector Lado Papava the same day called on politicians not to interfere in the university’s affairs, as it is an apolitical organization. He said that politicians can amend legislation regulating higher education.

“Adopt amendments, which will increase the autonomy of the university and will provide opportunity for making constructive decisions.’

Afterward, advisers for the president arrived at the university to hear their demands in person.

One of them, Kakha Kozhoridze, said after the meeting that the president and the administration of the president, believe that if there are so-called ODRs at the university, this has to be ended. He also met with the rector to discuss this issue.

Kozhoridze recalled that when Margvelashvili became president he abolished the practice of using ODRs at the president’s administration and it has to be eliminated in the university as well.

The president’s  adviser said that they do not interfere in the internal affairs of the university and it is up to the university to decide who will be chancellor.

At the end of the day, Gaprindashvili wrote on his Facebook page that he welcomes freedom of expression and people who use this right, but that one’s liberty ends at the point where other’s liberty starts.

He thanked the academic council for supporting his candidacy and wrote that considering the trust of higher bodies of the university he doesn’t plan to withdraw his candidacy.