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Protesters mark ‘Gavrilov’s Night’ anniversary in Tbilisi

20 June 2020
Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Georgian anti-government group Shame and several opposition parties have marked the anniversary of last year’s violent clashes with police with a demonstration outside parliament.

Organisers said the protest was directed against both the Kremlin’s policies toward Georgia as well as the ruling Georgian Dream party, who they dubbed ‘pro-Russian’. 

‘I face the choice today: either live in a Russian province or as an immigrant. I don't want to make that choice. That’s why I stand here’, the leader of the Shame Movement, Shota Digmelashvili said during his address to the rally. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Giorgi Margvelashvili, who was elected fourth President of Georgia as part of Georgian Dream before breaking with the party, was among the speakers. He condemned the government for the dispersal of protesters last year and for having ‘political prisoners’ in the country, referring to the arrest of opposition figures.

[Read more: Georgian President pardons opposition figures]

The protest on 20–21 June 2019 was sparked by Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov being invited to address parliament from the speaker’s seat as part of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy. Critics said the move was offensive given Russia’s role in the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

As midnight approached, protesters clashed with riot police as they attempted to occupy the parliament building. The ensuing violence left 275 people injured, including 73 police officers.

On Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue outside Parliament today, protest organisers marked the road with stickers of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face in order to help protesters maintain social distancing.

They also urged participants to wear masks and avoid pulling them off even when shouting during the rally.

The protest could not be held directly in front of parliament as the area was fenced-off for ‘reconstruction’ almost five months ago — a spot that had been continuously occupied by protesters with various grievances since June 2018.

The area in front of parliament has been fenced off since 22 January. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Smaller rallies marking the anniversary were also held in Batumi and Kutaisi.

‘Successfully passed test for democracy’ 

Georgian Dream’s Executive Secretary Irakli, Kobakhidze, who resigned as Parliamentary Speaker over the invitation extended to Gavrilov, admitted that last year’s events had been a ‘mistake’ on their part but insisted that it also represented a ‘crime committed by the opposition’.

In a statement on Saturday, the ruling party maintained that last year’s protest was justified up until the leaders of the ‘destructive opposition’ attempted to ‘storm’ the parliament building. 

With their ‘intensive storming’ of the Parliament, opposition groups sought to provoke an excessive police response to create a pretext to violently overthrow the government, they said. 

‘With these events, the government successfully passed a test for democracy and left no case of excessive use of force by police officers without legal consequences’, the statement read. 

In their investigation of the violence, the Prosecutor’s Office indicted only three police officers.

Additionally, 68 police officers were recognised as victims while only eight members of the public, out of at least 187 injured, were granted the same status. 

Those without the status of the injured party include two people who lost eyesight in one of their eyes as a result of rubber bullets shot indiscriminately by police.

[Read more: Voice | ‘What I hate the most is the injustice of it’]

Georgian authorities also charged MP Nika Melia and opposition leader Irakli Okruashvili for group violence on 20 June.

On Saturday, Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria joined government critics in contradicting Georgian Dream’s account of 20-21 June 2019 and their response to it. 

Lomjaria reiterated points from a report released in early April that found that the use of force by police was not proportionate or justified.

Mako Gomuri, who lost an eye after being shot with a rubber bullet by police, castigated Gakharia on Saturday for ‘not remembering’ the details of 20 June 2019. Photo: Ana Vakhtangadze/On.ge.

According to the public defender, while then-Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, currently Georgia’s Prime Minister, said he ordered police not to use rubber bullets, it remained unclear what measures he took to stop their use. 

The anniversary rally was held a day before the first hearing in parliament on constitutional amendments to change the country’s electoral system. If passed, these will slash the number of single-member majoritarian constituencies from 43 to 30 in the country’s 150-member parliament.

Leaving 30 majoritarian seats in Parliament is a watered-down version of Georgian Dream's original promise right after June 2019 street protests to entirely get rid of them.

It took four months of political deadlock and six rounds of negotiations brokered by Western diplomats to agree on 120/30 model on 8 March.

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