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Opposition and authorities accuse each other of starting “provocations”

By Mzia Kupunia
Monday, April 13
About 50 unidentified men assaulted opposition demonstrators on Rustaveli Avenue late on the night of April 11, Georgian opposition leaders have said. According to eyewitnesses men armed with wooden batons damaged the equipment and pressroom in front of the Parliament. One of the leaders of the opposition, Irakli Batiashvili, who was present at the time, said several opposition activists were also assaulted.

Batiashvili said that people dressed in civilian clothes entered the area with staff of the City Cleaning Service, identified themselves as more Cleaning Service staff and said they were going to clean the area in front of the Parliament building. Later, according to Batiashvili, they started assaulting people and smashed the opposition’s broadcasting equipment with batons. Batiashvili told journalists that opposition activists showed resistance and forced them to leave the site.

Early on April 12 the Ministry of Internal Affairs released videotapes of this incident recorded by CCTV cameras. A special MIA statement is appended, which contradicts what the opposition leaders have said. It says that at about 11 PM on April 11, staff of Tbilisi Cleaning Service came to clean the demonstration site following a request by the demonstrators. “When the group of cleaners came to the site, citizens participating in the demonstration physically and verbally assaulted them. Computers and sound systems were damaged. Nobody was seriously injured,” the statement adds, saying that “No representatives of the Police, Mayor’s Office or any other state institution were involved in the incident.”

The Ministry of Internal Affairs has said that the authorities will not interrupt the demonstration or prevent its continuation and will protect its participants. “The MIA will be as restrained in its future actions as it has been during the first three days of the demonstration,” the Internal Ministry statement says.

Opposition leaders say that by attacking the demonstration site “the Government has once more shown its real face.” Salome Zourabichvili, the leader of the Way of Georgia, even drew parallels with November 7, 2007 when the riot police dispersed demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets. “On November 7 people in City Cleaning Service uniforms came to Rustaveli Avenue and dispersed the rally participants,” Zourabichvili said. “This is the Government’s response to our peaceful demonstration,” she added.

Former Parliament Speaker and leader of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia Nino Burjanadze also said the incident was the response by the Government to the opposition’s proposal to start dialogue. She said it is “impossible to trust the authorities.” “If the opposition had had trust in the Government, they would not have made such a radical demand as the President’s resignation and would not have gathered so many people at the rally,” Burjanadze said. “This Government should resign,” she added.

Other members of the non-Parliamentary opposition have also described the incident as an attempt to wreck the talks between the Government and the opposition. MP Levan Vephkhvadze from the Christian Democratic Party said it was a “stupid” incident. “I think somebody is interested in artificially making the situation tense at a time when both sides were ready to start dialogue,” Vephkhvadze noted. The opposition MP said the authorities should investigate the case and punish the “provocateurs.” Interior Ministry officials have said an investigation is already underway.

Meanwhile Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava has said that from now on the organizers of the protest rallies will have to clean the area they are using themselves “in order to avoid such incidents in the future.” Speaking live on Rustavi 2 TV on Sunday morning, Ugulava said the Mayor’s Office will provide the organizers of the rally with all necessary equipment. “The Government wants to see that the rally participants don’t have any interaction with people in uniforms, in order to prevent any kinds of incident,” Ugulava noted. In response opposition activists gathered up the litter on Rustaveli Avenue and dumped it at the entrance to the Mayor’s office. Security staff there did not react to this, and after the opposition activists left, the Mayor’s office entrance was cleaned.

The opposition had declared on Saturday that they were taking a one-day break on Palm Sunday, however after the incident they changed their plans and called on their supporters to rally on Sunday too. Conservative Party member Bidzina Gujabidze said the authorities had not give the opposition an opportunity to let the people have a rest on a religious holiday. Georgian Troupe MP Jondi Baghaturia said at the rally that violence from the Government will give more energy to the people fighting to end Saakashvili’s rule by constitutional means.

Political analysts suggest that neither the opposition nor the Government should be interested in staging provocations. Independent political commentator Shalva Pichkhadze says that the side which breaches the peace first will be the loser. He suggests that the opinion of the West, which is the only impartial mediator in this case, is very important for both parties. Pichkhadze noted that the West is interested in a “peaceful resolution” of the tensions through dialogue.

“Saakashvili damaged his reputation in Western society by dispersing the demonstrators in November 2007 and he won’t be able to withstand Western pressure if there is any repetition of this. The opposition has not done anything bad so far, but the West does not see a good alternative to Saakashvili among the opposition leaders either, so they will lose the support of the West completely if they themselves start misbehaving,” Pichkhadze stated.