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Tens of thousands of people gathered on Tbilis’s Freedom Square on Sunday in a ‘No to Nazism’ rally organised by the conservative opposition Alliance of Patriots party.
The party called on their supporters to vote for Salome Zurabishvili, the presidential candidate endorsed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, in 28 November’s vote, in order to prevent the ‘return’ of the United National Movement Party (UNM).
The UNM party conceded victory to Georgian Dream in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
The Alliance of Patriots have accused Georgian Dream of ‘allowing the UNM to be rehabilitated’, as the UNM have maintained their position as the most popular opposition party, winning 27% in 2016 parliamentary elections.
The Alliance of Patriots have demanded several times in recent years that the UNM be outlawed as a ‘criminal regime’ for alleged human rights violations committed during their rule.
‘Ending the UNM’ was again the central message at their rally held on Sunday.
Relatives of former official Sulkhan Molashvili whose detention under the UNM’s government was ruled against by the European Court of Human Rights, of Buta Robakidze, who was killed by a police officer in November 2004, and several others claiming to be victims of crimes committed by the UNM joined Sunday’s rally.
Speakers at the rally condemned the ‘torture of prisoners’, ‘killing youth in streets’ and alleged racketeering during the UNM’s rule, and supported Zurabishvili in order to ‘make Vashadze lose’.
On 28 October, Zurabishvili narrowly defeated Grigol Vashadze, the presidential candidate from the UNM-led United Opposition coalition, winning 39% votes to 38%.
‘Let Salome Zurabishvili know that she’s being elected not by the [Georgian Dream] party, but by the people now’, announced Alliance of Patriots leader Irma Inashvili in her address.
Later that day, non-parliamentary ultra-conservative group Georgian March announced that they would expel anyone from their ranks who voted for Vashadze.
The UNM and spin-off party European Georgia characterised the event as a ‘pro-Government’ demonstration.
‘Today, Georgian Dream did something unthinkable — they organised a rally against the opposition, transported all their party base [to Tbilisi], and called this demonstration one of the Alliance of Patriots’, Sergi Kapanadze, one of the leaders of European Georgia, wrote on his Facebook page later that day.
In their 2017 reports, local watchdog the Media Development Foundation identified the Alliance of Patriots as the parliamentary party disseminating the most anti-Western sentiment as well as the top political party engaged in hate speech.
The party has faced criticism from rights groups for spreading xenophobia and anti-Turkish sentiments, as well as for holding several meetings with Russian politicians in Moscow, including their latest, fourth trip to Russia to attend a conference at the State Duma on 22 November.
Also on Sunday, a ‘group of locals’ who did not join the Alliance of Patriots rally held a separate gathering ‘against the return of the violent regime to power’ on the Round Garden Square, several kilometres from the other gathering.
The organisers set up the signs outlining the ‘legacy of the UNM’s regime’, claiming that 330,000 people were imprisoned and 52 killed during arrests in 2004–2011.
During the UNM’s rule, Georgia’s prison population soared several-fold to become one of the biggest per capita worldwide. By 2011, 24,000 people were in prison in Georgia, roughly 540 per 100,000 inhabitants.
After a prison torture scandal that contributed to the UNM’s loss in 2012 parliamentary elections, Georgian Dream released about 24,000 prisoners in an amnesty.
By 2016, the number of prisoners was reduced to 246 per 100,000 inhabitants, still over double the European median of 117.
‘A true mother would have stood by my side’
A parallel rally was held several hundreds meters away from the Alliance of Patriots’ demonstration to commemorate what would have been the 20th birthday of Temirlan Machalikashvili, a Kist teenager shot dead by Georgian security forces during a special operation in the Pankisi Valley in December.
The gathering took place in front of the Parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue, which has been the site of a months long protest by the Fathers for Truth movement, led by Temirlan’s father, Malkhaz Machalikashvili, and Zaza Saralidze, the father of a 16-year-old boy murdered in a brawl outside a school in Tbilisi in December.
The authorities have unsuccessfully tried to ban protest tents from the location several times, stirring public outcry and a legal challenge. Several opposition parties have supported the families’ demands for proper investigations of both incidents.
At Sunday’s rally, members of Temirlan’s family made speeches denouncing the government for their failure to admit he was ‘wrongfully’ killed.
Several of them condemned the nearby rally of the Alliance of Patriots for ignoring their demands.
Medea Margoshvili, Temirlan’s mother, directly addressed Alliance of Patriots leader Irma Inashvili. ‘You were in Pankisi insisting you shared my pain […] If you were a true mother, you would have stood by my side’,.
Margoshvili called Georgian Dream a ‘government of murderers’ for their alleged attempt to cover for the ‘killers’ of her son, and vowed to continue to protest until the perpetrators were punished.
The police blocked off vehicle movement on Rustaveli Avenue and Freedom Square and separated participants of the two rallies.
On the same day, Tbilisi-based rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) reiterated their criticism of the Georgian authorities for their alleged failure to conduct an effective and objective investigation into Temirlan’s death.
EMC claimed that the Prosecutor’s Office continued the investigation only ‘formally’ and have been depriving the Machalikashvili family’s lawyers access to case materials.
EMC also accused the government of pursuing an ‘information war’ and attempted ‘character assassination’ of Temirlan Machalikashvili, portraying him as a terrorist.