Police in the Georgian Black Sea city of Batumi have confronted opposition protesters carrying animal balloons outside the local government offices.
At least two people, including the opposition United National Movement Party (UNM) member Revaz Kharazi were detained on Wednesday as protesters flew balloons outside the local government building in the city.
Police have detained several protesters in recent days, including four yesterday, after they started to fly shark and zebra-shaped helium balloons with the messages ‘slavery sucks’ and ‘no to kotsis!’ outside the windows of the local government building. ‘Kotsi’ is a pejorative term for supporters of the ruling Georgian Dream Party.
Anti-government demonstrators have for years used animals to allude to the chair of Georgian Dream and the former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire known also for his private zoo.
Six protesters have been fined ₾500 ($100) for disobeying police within the last seven days and Batumi City Court has also qualified anti-government chants like ‘shame!’ or ‘slaves!’ as petty hooliganism. Georgian watchdog group the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) called the move ‘dangerous’ for freedom of expression in Georgia.
Batumi becomes the centre of protests
Georgia has witnessed a number of anti-government protests following the introduction of strict anti-coronavirus regulations on 28 November. The restrictions include a 21:00 curfew and have halted a substantial portion of economic activities.
Most recent demonstrations have been spontaneous reactions to the curbs and major opposition groups, which dispute the results of 31 October’s parliamentary elections, have said they are not planning large protests in Tbilisi.
Batumi has been an exception, with the offices of the local government and election commission becoming a protest hotspot over the past three weeks.
The protests in Batumi have targetted the chair of the Government of Adjara, Tornike Rizhvadze, as well as the Georgian Dream party, which cemented their seats in the local Supreme Council.
All eight opposition parties that gained seats in parliament have vowed to reject their seats and boycotted 21 November second rounds held in 17 majoritarian districts, including Batumi.
Opposition leaders claim pressure as court cases reactivate amid protracted negotiations
On Wednesday, three opposition leaders — Nika Melia from the UNM, Victorious Georgia Party chair Irakli Okruashvili, and Gigi Ugulava from the European Georgia Party — all claimed that they had been notified of court proceedings against them in separate criminal cases.
Melia was suspended as an MP last December and charged with organising and participating in group violence during the 20–21 June anti-government protests last year.
Okruashvili has faced similar charges over the June 2019 protests and was sentenced to five years in prison in mid-April before being pardoned by Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili a month later. Okruashvili is still implicated in a 2004 case of abuse of official powers.
Zurabishvili explained her controversial move as a compromise needed to overcome political gridlock hindering electoral reforms and parliamentary elections.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgian President pardons opposition figures]
Gigi Ugulava, who was similarly prosecuted for ‘violence’ during the night of 20-21 June 2019 and sentenced to three years in February, was also granted a pardon by Zurabishvili. He is also facing charges of money laundering during his Tbilisi mayorship and alleged violence against an electoral official in 2014.
Nika Gvaramia, the director of TV channel Mtavari Arkhi (‘main channel’) who occupied several government positions in 2007–2009 under the UNM, also claimed on Tuesday that hearings in his case would be unexpectedly scheduled within the coming days.
In July 2019, Gvaramia was indicted for allegedly embezzling assets from Rustavi 2, the TV company he previously ran.
All of them reported later that day that they had received further notices from the courts that their hearings were being delayed until further notice due to COVID-19.
Tbilisi City Court confirmed that they had postponed hearings in around 100 cases to avoid ‘technical-systemic collapse’ as they had moved to distance hearings.
The three political leaders said the summons were an apparent warning from Bidzina Ivanishvili, who they claim controls the courts. It came as the opposition prepares for a third round of negotiations with the government. The opposition have maintained their demand for repeated elections.
[Read more on OC Media: Protesters face off with riot police outside Georgian Central Election commission]