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Two competing rallies were held in Tbilisi on 9 May, the Day of Victory over Fascism, with groups marching in the name of the Immortal Regiment, many of whom held portraits of Stalin, confronted by protesters waving anti-Putin and pro-EU and NATO signs.
The Immortal Regiment movement, founded in Russia, held their first rally in 2012 to commemorate the Soviet soldiers who fought in WWII. Even though the organisation describes itself as apolitical, Russian officials, including Russian president Vladimir Putin, have frequently taken part in their rallies.
Many of those gathered at the rally in Tbilisi on Thursday demanded Georgia’s diplomatic relations with Russia, which were severed in 2008, be restored.
‘We should start negotiations. On your behalf I would like to address our president, PM, and foreign ministry to start thinking about this and addressing this issue’, said one of the protesters.
Others held portraits of Stalin and thanked him for bringing ‘peace and prosperity’.
‘Glory to Stalin, to the organiser of the victory, the ruler, the commander-in-chief, the son of our motherland who brought peace, socialism, and prosperity of people, which has been proven by many scientists in the West and all continents’, said one of the speakers at the rally.
Supporters of the Immortal Regiment were met by two groups of counter-protesters, who waved EU, Georgian, and NATO flags and said that Russia was occupying Georgian territories.
They chanted ‘Putin Khuylo’ (Putin is a dickhead), a slogan frequently used to deride Russian President Vladimir Putin.
‘The new generation has chosen a European way […] Putin cannot flourish here. Russian occupation will not happen here. We will regain the territories that have been occupied’, said Nino Danelia, one of the counter-protesters.
She said that they had gathered to declare that Georgians would not tolerate ‘Russian occupation’ and that Georgia was going to win ‘the hybrid war’.
‘We are protesting Putin’s march. Both organisations who are marching here — the so-called Immortal Regiment and Eurasia are directly connected to Putin and the Kremlin’, said Danelia.
Two groups of counter-protesters, who stood on opposing sides in Tbilisi’s Vake Park, booed as the Immortal Regiment march passed between them.
Police arrested five people, four for hooliganism and disobeying police and another for using a Soviet symbol, which is banned according to Georgian legislation. All of them were released by evening.
Georgian officials including Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, Chair of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze, and President Salome Zurabishvili also came to Vake Park to mark the day.
The president, who arrived at the scene during the faceoff between the two groups, was booed and called a ‘traitor’ by many of the demonstrators.
Zurabishvili has faced criticism for her controversial statements regarding Russia, including about who started the 2008 August War and her latest remark about not wanting US military bases in Georgia.
During the 2018 presidential election, she said that Georgia was ‘tricked by a Russian provocation’ into starting ‘this part of the war situation’ in South Ossetia. She later clarified that she did not believe Georgia started the war but continued to blame former President Mikheil Saakashvili for the Georgian attack on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali (Tskhinval).
The latest controversy followed an interview with Voice of America in which she expressed doubts when asked whether she was open to hosting a US military base on Georgian soil.
‘I don't think that it would be recommended. We don't need to take steps that might be viewed as provocations, and I don't think that the United States would be ready to have a military base here, which would probably attract reactions both from Russia and from these […] terrorist movements that are very active in the region’, said Zurabishvili.