A newly launched movement vowing to counter Georgia’s former ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM), has set up tents in front of Parliament in an effort to reclaim the space for the ‘real voice of the people’.
The group, Let’s Preserve Lives, say they want to prevent the return to power of anyone associated with the former UNM government, including from the European Georgia party, which broke away in January 2017.
On the night of 10 December, a fist-fight broke out outside parliament between anti-government protesters and two unidentified men, who were eventually escorted away by police.
The incident took place hours after members of Let’s Preserve Lives set up three tents amidst the anti-government encampment outside parliament. The spot has been the site of several round-the-clock anti-government protests since June last year.
One of those involved in the brawl on Wednesday night was Malkhaz Machalikashvili, whose son Temirlan Machalikashvili was killed in a special operation by Georgian security forces in December 2017.
Speaking to OC Media, several ‘anti-opposition’ activists who were occupying a space outside the parliament denied knowing the men who engaged in the fight with anti-government protesters.
Machalikashvili — a host of anti-government protests
Malkhaz Machalikashvili has been camping in front of parliament since last year. He has accused the government of covering up excessive force used by the counterterror squad that killed his son. He has participated in several anti-government rallies outside the parliament.
The latest protest campaign he joined was sparked in June after the ruling Georgian Dream party invited a Russian Communist Party MP to address the Georgian Parliament.
The protests, led by youth groups endorsed by opposition political parties, were revitalised in mid-November after Georgian Dream backtracked on their promise to reform Georgia’s electoral system — a measure that was initially promised to relax popular anger on the streets.
Unlike in June, the government offered no immediate compromise to the opposition following these latest protests, suggesting that the opposition get ready for the 2020 elections under the current electoral system.
In response to claims of ‘broken promises’, a protest platform including almost all major opposition political parties (excluding the Alliance of Patriots) agreed to coordinate their efforts to force Georgian Dream to concede to at least some of their demands.
[Read up on the latest on ongoing negotiations: ‘Multi-member constituencies’ proposed as Georgian Dream–opposition talks restart]
Youth groups and some opposition parties, including the United National Movement (UNM), their spin-off, European Georgia, and the Labour Party also tried to blockade Parliament last month. The crowd, which had padlocked and blocked the entrances to parliament, was dispersed by riot police deploying water cannons.
Opposition groups, who have since December tried to expand their rallies to towns and cities outside the capital, have been met by violent counter-rallies that they allege have been organised by the government.
Georgian Dream is organising a large rally in Tbilisi on 14 December ‘to mark Georgia’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers’.
The same reason was cited as the occasion to organise a concert on 2 December, a night that ended with a pro-government group assaulting an anti-government youth protest in Tbilisi.
Victims against victims
Unlike far-right groups that confronted the ‘pro-gay and marijuana’ rallies in May or pro-government groups countering the latest protests, the newly launched Let’s Preserve Lives movement primarily claim to have been victims of state oppression during the rule of former President Mikheil Saakashvili (2004–2013) and the United National Movement.
The group was unveiled on 9 December by Soso Robakidze, the father of 19-year-old Buta (Amiran) Robakidze, who was killed by police in 2004.
Robakidze was joined by several others whose relatives suffered injustices under the UNM’s rule.
These included Tornike Molashvili, whose brother Sulkhan Molashivli, a former official, was declared by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to have been illegally detained, mistreated, and denied a fair trial under the UNM’s government.
Another was Manana Vazagashvili, whose nephew Zurab Vazagashvili was killed by police officers in 2006. In 2015, after announcing he had discovered new evidence surrounding his son’s death, Zurab’s father was assassinated at his son’s grave.
Despite the authorities subsequently securing a conviction in both cases, the ECHR ruled that they had failed to investigate in a timely manner.
Shako Kuchashvili, a young activist from Let’s Preserve Lives who spent the night in the ‘anti-opposition’ camp on 10 December, told OC Media he respected Malkhaz Machalikashvili’s ‘emotional state’, and insisted that their targets were former members of the United National Movement government.
‘They are not the main opposition party for me’, another activist, Pridon Merebashvili, told OC Media. ‘For me, they are a bloody regime.’
Merebashvili, who was recognised as a political prisoner prosecuted ‘on trumped-up charges’ by the Georgian Parliament in 2013, said that he and other counter-protestors would ‘rather just keep a distance’ from ‘bellicose’ Machalikashvili instead of trying to argue with him.
Kuchashvili described their movement as ‘situational allies’ of Georgian Dream but denied any connections to them beyond that. He vowed to ‘help police’ if anti-government groups reattempted to blockade parliament, which he called ‘anti-constitutional’.
‘We demand the government punish former officials, including [Giga] Bokeria’, activist Teona Kukhianidze told OC Media. ‘We are voicing the public’s opinion; people want the leaders of the UNM, of that 9-year regime, to be punished, instead of watching them on TV waving their fingers at us’.
Forty-eight-year-old Vepkhia Ghvaladze, a supporter of the anti-opposition protesters, told OC Media he felt no improvement in the financial standing of his family during Georgian Dream’s tenure.
‘At some point, I became very disappointed by them and they made me forget the UNM, but after I saw them [the opposition] running around in the streets… I noticed that it went to their heads… You can’t be so soft with them and let them do whatever they want, they just kept pushing for more and more.’