Tbilisi central streets turned into a riot zone on Friday evening. Few people – MPs among them – were hurt when citizens clashed with representatives of former ruling elite as President Mikheil Saakashvili attempted to address people from the National Parliamentary Library. Whether the police did all to prevent the incident remains under question.
The story began with the annual presidential speech in the Parliament, scheduled on 8 February, St. David’s day. According to the Georgian constitution, President has to address the Parliament once a year and the Parliament has the obligation to listen to him.
A day before the planned presidential speech, Georgian Dream canceled the event amid disagreement with the opposition on upcoming constitutional changes (some claim that the true reason is hidden from public). The draft of the constitutional amendments strips the head of state of the right to dismiss a government even if the parliament refuses to accept a new cabinet appointed by the president.
In response, President Saakashvili decided to address the nation from the building of National Library instead. Quite a wide range of people – including ambassadors, civil society representatives and journalists – were invited, though some journalists refused to attend as a sign of protest, arguing that the President hadn’t answered their questions for nine years.
A crowd of protesters gathered around the library, partly consisting of prisoners recently released after the controversial amnesty and followers of the past ruling party. Temperature rose as the presidential speech was coming closer and it soon spilled over into violence. Some UNM leaders – for instance Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava – were reported to have been physically assaulted. Live on TV we could see UNM press-speaker and MP Chiora Taqtaqishvili’s nose bleeding as Saakashvili went back to his Presidential Palace to address the nation from there.
UNM members accuse police of inaction and point fingers to the new government, while the latter blames the UNM for not following police orders and deliberately going into the middle of the fight. Loyal to the best traditions of Georgian street fighting, most of them did not back off indeed. The very same evening representatives of the former and current governments confronted each other on number of talk-shows, only to continue finger-pointing. Once again, who to believe is upon citizens’ political beliefs as it is still unclear whether police did or did not create the alternative corridor for each group of protesters.
As the public generally disapproved of taking politics out on Rustaveli Avenue yet again, some say that, after what they did to those people in prisons and to many others, the UNM has no moral right to complain. There is a jocular Facebook page titled “50 representatives of the former government you should beat up before you die.” International representation and civil society are, expectedly, deeply concerned.
Later on President Saakashvili finally addressed the nation from his residence, concentrating on accusing the new government and answering some of the questions from the TV stations that, however, were not allowed to questioning the President for long.
As discussions about who was right and wrong continue, it is clear what would have prevented the incident – letting the president deliver his traditional speech in the Parliament as scheduled.
Georgia after the Vote, by Ana Dabrundashvili
11 February: Georgia’s Political Standoff Deepens, by Anna Nemtsova (FP)