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Peaceful demonstration ignites Georgia

By Messenger Staff
Friday, April 10
With only one demand, the resignation of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, tens of thousands of protestors gathered outside Parliament on April 9. This rally, which the opposition has planned and spoken about for two months, started 30 minutes late against a backdrop of a Georgian song dedicated to the April 9 tragedy of 20 years ago, when an anti-Soviet demonstration was dispersed by the Soviet Army, resulting in 20 deaths and hundreds of injuries. April 9 is now remembered as the Day of National Unity and is a public holiday.

Columns of protestors, led by opposition leaders, started flowing towards the Parliament building from different parts of the city. As previously announced, they gathered at Tbilisi State University, the Georgian Public Broadcaster headquarters, the President’s Avlabari Residence, Dinamo Stadium, Rustaveli Metro station etc.

The rally was opened by prominent Georgian public figure and poet Davit Magradze, author of the Georgian national anthem, who led a minute’s silence in memory of those killed on April 9 1989 at the same spot.

What do the opposition leaders demand?

The rally was opened by former Presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze, the main rival of Saakashvili in the January 2008 elections, who began with his favourite phrase: “Misha, we have come!” and continued, “We have come here to say: resign; resign.” “He [President Saakashvili] is fighting against the Georgian Church and Georgian values. He has partitioned Georgia and now we should stand here until he leaves politics,” Gachechiladze told the rally.

“The opposition will stay united until it fulfills the demand of the people,” said leader of the Alliance for Georgia, Irakli Alasania, saying the demand for Saakashvili’s resign is this ‘will of the people.’ “After this goal is achieved every political party will campaign separately,” he added. Speaking to The Messenger he also noted that compromise between the Government and opposition is only possible after the leader of the country resigns. “After Saakashvili resigns all the political parties will continue to struggle for a democratic society on their own in conditions of healthy competition,” added David Gamkrelidze, a member of Alasania’s alliance and leader of the New Rights Party.

“The thousands of people gathered here form a delegation from the whole of Georgia, and we will stand here until our main demands are fulfilled,” stated leader of the Georgian Labour Party Shalva Natelashvili.

The opposition leaders rule out any compromise with the ruling party. “The only compromise acceptable for us is the President leaving,” said Shalva Natelashvili. “No dialogue is possible with the current Government,” agrees Salome Zourabichvili, head of the Way of Georgia.

Among the protestors who addressed the thousands of people gathered on Rustaveli Avenue was Tsotne Gamsakhurdia, son of Georgia’s first President, the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who appealed to the gathered people to recall the events of April 9 1989. “This day was the springboard for the independence of Georgia, which became a reality just 2 years after these events, when the Georgian people elected the first and last Georgian President – Zviad Gamsakhurdia,” stated Tsotne Gamsakhurdia, who accused Mikheil Saakashvili of “squandering the unimaginable benefit of people’s trust” and joined the demands for his resignation.

After the main action at around 6 o’clock in the evening Irakli Alasania organized a press briefing at the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel. He said that by the most modest estimate around 125,000 people had attended the rally. He also stated that Saakashvili and his administration were being given 24 hours to resign. At 3 o clock today (Friday) the opposition will publicly announce the response it has received from Saakashvili and his team and what its decision is on the next steps to be taken.

Alasania stated that volunteers who wanted to stay outside Parliament overnight would be welcome to, as the leaders of the opposition would also be there all night.

Protestors whistle at Nino Burjanadze

One of the key figures of the opposition, the former close ally of Saakashvili and ex Speaker of Parliament Nino Burjanadze, was the third politician to address the people. As she began speaking the protestors started whistling at her, shouting that she had participated in the November 7 2007 violations, at which the authorities cracked down on peaceful demonstrators. Burjanadze apologized to the people for “being unable to protect them” in November 2007 and acknowledged that the people had wanted her to defend them but she could not do it.

“He [Saakashvili] will leave, he will have to,” stated Burjanadze “The list of reasons why we demand the resignation of the President is very long, however one of the main ones is drawing the country into the war with Russia, due to which we have lost our territories,” she told The Messenger just after her speech at the rally.

Opposition demands the Georgian Public Broadcaster broadcast the rally live

Later on April 9 opposition leaders including Levan Gachechiladze and Zviad Dzidziguri from the Conservative Party moved with thousands of supporters from Rustaveli Avenue to the main office of Georgian Public Broadcaster [GPB]. “This television station survives on public money, so it has to serve the people’s interests,” stated Gachechiladze. He and other opposition politicians demanded that the management of the TV station broadcast the protest live. After a brief conversation with the administration of GPB, Gachechiladze told his supporters that the channel was ready to fulfill this demand. Soon afterwards this group of protestors left the GPB office and joined the rally on Rustaveli.

Parliamentary opposition does not join the rally

“We do not have a unilateral position on whether to join the rally or not. If any of our party members wish to stand where so many Georgian citizens stand, they are free to do so, they will not be restricted at all. It is good that so many people came out to protest. Now the second stage of the protest starts, the stage of dialogue. The Government should be forced to make maximal compromises through dialogue. We will only end up in deadlock through radical ways of protest,” Christian Democrat MP Levan Vephkhvadze told this paper.

“Dialogue has not started yet but nevertheless the Government has agreed to the direct election of the Tbilisi Mayor. This means that the Government is ready to make more compromises. I cannot predict what exactly the Government will compromise on. But for me the best thing will be if the Government agrees to adopt a Parliamentary and not Presidential system of government. This will be a way of getting rid of Saakashvili without radicalism and street protests,” he added.

The authorities’ position concerning the rally

Shortly after the rally began Government officials stressed that they are always ready to hold dialogue with even the radical opposition.

“Dialogue is possible on any subject, but when our colleagues start dialogue with ultimatums they probably realize that these will get them nowhere,” said Pavle Kublashvili, ruling National Movement MP.

“Georgia has once more proved that it is a democratic state, where any citizen can express their opinion peacefully. At any moment we are ready to start a dialogue on any issue, in order to address the challenges that exist in Georgi,.” Akaki Minashvili, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, said.

“April 9 is the day of Georgia’s unity and independence. The people who are standing on Rustaveli Avenue have a lot of dignity and this dignity needs to be respected. We should obey the words of the Patriarch and find ways of communicating with each other,” said Rusudan Kervalishvili, Deputy Parliament Speaker and ruling party MP.

“The Government was ready for dialogue, is ready for dialogue now and will be ready in the future also. This dialogue should not be led with the language of ultimatum however,” David Darchiasvhili, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration, said.

Diplomatic opinion

EU Special Representative in the Caucasus Peter Semneby, together with the Czech Ambassador to Georgia Ivan Jestrab and Francois Massoulie, Counsellor at the EU Delegation of the European Commission to Georgia’s Political Section, held a press conference in Marriott Tbilisi assessing the first day of the opposition rallies. Semneby expressed his satisfaction that so far both sides had behaved correctly, following the democratic rules of the game. He also mentioned that some EU countries had assigned observers/police experts to monitor the conduct of both parties during the rallies.

Semneby refrained from estimating the turnout of protestors but expressed his optimism that the demonstrations will continue to develop within a constitutional and democratic framework for as long as they continue. He added however that the protests would eventually transform into dialogue and negotiations, as this is the only way to resolve such issues.

Expert opinion

“This first day of the manifestations demonstrated the wisdom and rationality of both the opposition and the Government. The way the rally has been conducted can serve as an example even for some European countries. The Government was likewise smart enough to instruct the police act in a new way, defending even the enemies of the current regime,” said independent Georgian political expert Soso Tsiskarishvili, speaking to The Messenger. He also underlined the role of Georgian Patriarch Ilia II, who had appealed to both sides to restrain from violence. “The calm situation at the rally also shows that there is one person in Georgia who has great authority both for the supporters and opponents of the Saakashvili Government – Ilia II.” “It’s hard to predict things now, but there is one thing we know for sure - the side which starts to use force will lose this confrontation,” Tsiskarishvili concluded.

What do the people want?

The demonstrators said the President must resign. “I am fighting for the future of my country. Everyone here has come out into the streets to change the country for the better. I demand the President’s resignation, in order to end the fake democracy that we have now and establish a real democracy in Georgia,” 55-year-old housewife Neli Nibladze said, quoting the August war as the biggest mistake made by President Saakashvili.

52-year-old unemployed person Marina Bulbulashvili said Saakashvili used to have huge public support but had failed to use it properly. “The Georgian people were carrying Saakashvili in their arms, however he was not able to use this for the good of the country. I do not know whether he will resign or not. I don’t know what he has in his mind. But I will come here every day. I want Georgia to blossom, because I love my country,” Bulbulashvili noted.

63-year-old Elizbar Petriashvili also said Saakashvili had been unable to make use of the trust of the people, which he had gained during the Rose Revolution. “The most horrible thing he did is start the war. This is the main reason why these people are in the street. If not for the war, he would still have had a chance to stay as President,” Petriashvili noted, adding that “I will come to the rally for as long as it lasts if my health is good enough.”

While Petriashvili doubts that the President will resign, 32-year old Ela Kalabegashvili, who had come to the rally from the town of Gurjaani in Eastern Georgia, said Saakashvili will have to step down. “The people have great power, of course he will resign if the people stand strong. We will stand here for as many days as necessary. If one month is needed, I personally will stand here for one month,” Kalabegashvili said.

An 80-year-old pensioner, who declined to reveal her name and asked to be referred to as Tamriko, said she had left home without telling her daughters and grandchildren. “We are in very bad conditions. I have children and grandchildren and I cannot do anything for them. I receive a pension that is worth nothing. I demand Saakashvili’s resignation. Yes, he will resign, I believe so,” she said, waving a small flag with a protest sign on it.

“There are several factors that made me join this protest. The first is that I am a mother whose son was killed and the President pardoned his murderer. The second is that I am a journalist by profession and today freedom of speech doesn’t exist in our country. The third is that justice and tolerance have been lost in our country” said Nanuli Burchiladze.

“We say NO to violence, NO to injustice. Today we, representatives of the “Centre of Young People” of Tbilisi State University, express our protest with bare hands. We don’t represent any opposition group; we are making an independent protest. We demand that violations and killing people stop. Today we are here to present our demands in a peaceful way,” said Eka Apshinashvili, a student of TSU.

The rally continued all night long, let’s hope that today will be as peaceful as yesterday.