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Protest Camp in front of the Parliament: Indicator of a Political Crisis

01.04.2021

 
Aleko Tskitishvili

Rustaveli Avenue and the area around the Parliament building are often the main epicenter of intense political or public protests. Political parties or civic groups often hold protest rallies near the Parliament premises, mainly on the side of Rustaveli Avenue. The government is always mostly concerned of the dissatisfied citizens gathered at this location and usually reacts very painfully to the facts of erecting non-permanent constructions like protest camps there.  Also recently, there have been a number of cases where the police banned protesters from setting up tents in front of the Parliament and spending nights there.  

Such a harsh response from the authorities against the tents is especially surprising to foreign observers, who do not understand in historical terms why a tent may be unacceptable to the Georgian authorities, when the use of such non-permanent structures is considered to be a peaceful form of protest around the world. Analysis of the events of the last 30-35 years shows that the historical memory of the government and the public perceives the tents in front of the Parliament on Rustaveli Avenue as a symbol of the political crisis, when certain days (months) are left for the government and the time for systemic changes has come. That is why it is crucial for the government not to have a protest camp on Rustaveli Avenue, and for the protest organizers it is significant the rally to have a continuous character, going day and night, during which the tents becomes a necessary attribute of the rally.

Excursion into the history 

Anti-government rallies and demonstrations were virtually banned in the Soviet Union when Georgia was one of the Socialist Republics. In this regard, there are only two well-known exceptions, when people dissatisfied with the Soviet government protested en masse in Georgia: 1) On March 9, 1956, people in Tbilisi came out in protest of the policy denouncing Stalin's cult of personality during which the government used firearms against the protesters and shot dozens of people (official figures for the dead are not credible, exact figures are not available). The memorial to the victims of March 9 is located on Rustaveli Avenue. 2) On April 14, 1978, thousands of people gathered on Rustaveli Avenue in front of the former Supreme Soviet (now the Parliament) premises to protest against the decision of the USSR authorities, according to which, based on an amendment to Article 78 of the USSR Constitution, the Georgian language was losing the status of a state language. Soviet government this time gave ground and the constituent republics retained their languages  in the status of state language.

Large-scale protests on Rustaveli Avenue have intensified since the second half of the 1980s, when Mikheil Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and the author of the Transformation (Russian: перестройка), lifted the ban imposed by the communist dictatorship on protest rallies. This "concession" was followed in a few years by mass protests of the peoples of the Soviet republics and finally by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Protests in Georgia ended tragically on April 9, 1989, when popular protests reached a climax and Soviet authorities used banned poison gas and tanks to disperse the protest. 21 people were killed during the dispersal of the rally. 

Protest tents appeared on Rustaveli Avenue shortly after Georgia regained its independence. During the rule of the first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the area around the Parliament (then the Supreme Council) premises was completely occupied by the supporters of the government, due to which the opposition was forced to choose other places in the city for the rallies. Rallies in support of the government were held in front of the Supreme Council. The protesters spent the nights in tents. Interestingly, females predominated among them, which is why opponents called them "tent women" and "Mdedrioni" (Cynically, in resemblance with "Mkhedrioni"). Before the military coup, the opposition tried to discredit the residents of these tents and partially succeeded in this, as from now on, the Georgian society indifferent (neutral) to rallies is  upset  of seeing the erected protest camps and other non-permanent constructions on Rustaveli to no lesser extent as being upset of the government. 
 
After the overthrow of Zviad Gamsakhurdia's government through a military coup, the organizers of large-scale rallies and protest camps  in front of the Parliament were mostly opponents of the government. However, we can recall another exception, when in the days before the Velvet (so-called Rose) Revolution of 2003, pro-government rallies were held in front of the Parliament and were attended by the supporters of Union for Democratic Revival, Zviad Gamsakhurdia's widow, Manana Archvadze and Union of Citizens of Georgia. As the main protest site was occupied by government supporters, opposition rallies were held in parallel in Freedom Square, and it was from there that protesters attacked the State Chancellery and the Parliament premises.

The leader of the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, became the target of mass protests within a few years of being elected as President. Opposition parties and their supporters mostly protested against Saakashvili's repressive policies and human rights abuses. It was during his presidency that instead of tents...cells appeared in front of the Parliament. In spring of 2009, the idea of installing such improvised non-permanent constructions on Rustaveli Avenue was aired by Giorgi Gachechiladze - "Utsnobi", who on April 21 left for a while the TV show "Cell N5" he founded on Maestro TV and called on the protesters gathered on Rustaveli to set up cells. Further, his brother, the leader of the opposition movement, Levan Gachechiladze, started on Rustaveli Avenue organizing the construction of a "city of cells". Levan Gachechiladze stated that Tbilisi would turn into city Ghetto of cells, until President Saakashvili leaves the office. Opposition activists and supporters, some of whom were mobilized from the regions, spent the night in more than a hundred handmade cells on Rustaveli Avenue and Freedom Square. The government has traditionally had a painful reaction to this initiative of the opposition and has tried to discredit this rally in various ways. The opposition suspected that different groups of citizens (for example - taxi drivers) provoked by the government were planning counter-demonstration demanding the opening of Rustaveli Avenue blocked by the cells. Eventually the crisis created by the cells lasted until summer, and finally, when the protest ran out of steam and the protest became more or less marginalized, the opposition dismantled the cells.

Mikheil Saakashvili's government also tried to limit opposition protest rallies with the levers of legislation. Civil society activists and human rights organizations have appealed such laws to the Constitutional Court. After hearing one of such claims, for instance, the Constitutional Court of Georgia held on April 18, 2011, the norms prohibiting holding assemblies and demonstrations within a 20-meter radius of the entrances of premises of certain institutions and administrative bodies, including of the courts to be unconstitutional. The court accepted the opinion of the authors of the constitution complaint that such a prohibition was unconstitutional, as in some cases it made it virtually impossible to hold assemblies and demonstrations. Further, the Court noted that the right of assembly may be restricted when it interferes with the proper functioning of the institution or when the restriction is due to special security measures. 

The period of the rule of Georgian Dream

The non-acceptance of non-permanent constructions like tents at the opposition protest rallies was inherited by the Georgian Dream government. The tent, as a symbol of the political crisis, appeared on Rustaveli Avenue this time in 2018, when, due to systemic problems in the judiciary, protest rallies with participation of thousands of individuals followed the protests of Zaza Saralidze and Malkhaz Machalikashvili the fathers of killed sons. Saralidze and Machalikashvili tried to erect a protest camp in front of the Parliament several times, but the police did not allow them to do so. One of the cases was on September 26, 2018, when Zaza Saralidze, who was walking towards the Parliament, was stopped by police officers without any explanation and was deprived of a tent. The Public Defender of Georgia reacted harshly to this case stating that the seizure of the tent had no legal basis. The Public Defender filed a motion to the Prosecutor General to launch an investigation into a possible crime by law enforcement officers. However, the Office of the Prosecutor General did not agree with the Ombudsman's proposal. Due to the seizure, Saralidze and Machalikashvili approached Tbilisi City Court requesting to declare illegal the action on the part of the police banning the erection of the protest camp.

On the evening of November 10, 2018, non-governmental organizations held a rally in support of Zaza Saralidze and Malkhaz Machalikashvili in front of the Parliament building - "We are protecting freedom with protest camps!"   with representatives of the organizations bringing at the site several tents. Police tried not to allow the erection of the protest camp in front of the Parliament again, but despite great resistance, NGO representatives still managed to pitch their tents. The leaders of the organizations then stayed in the tents all night to protect the tents from the police.

Zaza Saralidze and Malkhaz Machalikashvili were able to exercise their constitutional rights for several months after the protest camp was erected  in front of the Parliament thanks to the efforts of non-governmental organizations. The government used also other methods and tricks to prevent the protest in front of the Parliament. For example, fathers of killed children received a letter from Tbilisi City Hall saying that in December 2018, the City Hall wanted to put up a Christmas tree in front of the Parliament, so they were asked to change the place of the protest rally. Due to the great civic support for the fathers of the killed children, the City Hall changed the plan: in December 2018, the Christmas tree was lit on the First Republic Square, while the tents of the fathers were left in front of the Parliament. City Hall even installed lights and electric stoves in the tents, thus emphasizing that it was not going to disrupt the rally. This tent stood in front of the Parliament until the events of June 20-21, 2019, before it was dismantled during a large-scale protest rally in front of the Parliament. However, a few days later, despite police resistance, Malkhaz Machalikashvili set up a tent near the Parliament again.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili continued the protest alone because Zaza Saralidze's demands were met down the road and he abandoned the rally. On December 30, 2019, Tbilisi City Hall did not take into account the protest of the father whose son was killed and this time the tent was  taken again under the pretext of installing a Christmas tree. The area around the Parliament premises this time was occupied by Christmas tree and merry-goes-rounds for children’s entertainment.  Particular irony in the public was caused by the gnashing air shark, which was perceived by citizens on social media as a symbol of government brutality. Opposition named the shark the immoral face of the government.

The government further used similar tricks against the protest rallies in front of the Parliament. After the New Year holidays, on January 20, 2020, Tbilisi City Hall planned to rehabilitate the area around the Parliament premises completely fencing the perimeter as a construction site. This decision was followed by criticism of the opposition and the civil movement Shame, especially against the background that the area around the Parliament did not require virtually any rehabilitation. The project presented live by Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze and Parliament gained even harsher criticism. The rehabilitation was carried out under the  project and finally, this wide space, which has been used for decades for various assemblies, including protest rallies, was occupied by decorative shrubs and elevated, sharp-edged structures. These constructions per sue will prevent numerous citizens from gathering in front of the Parliament.

However, since spring of 2021, when the government eased the restrictions imposed for the prevention of the new coronavirus and  protest rallies were allowed before the so-called curfew, protests in the newly "rehabilitated" Parliament Square resumed, and the fight for erecting the protect camp started all over again.  

On February 19, 2021, the police detained civil activists who tried to set up tents in front of the Parliament. Activists were also arrested on February 21 for trying to set up tents. The actions by the police are sometimes awkward causing irony in the public. For example, during the arrest of the civil activists, the police stole tents and never returned them to the citizens. Eventually, the tent battle with the police ended with the victory of activists: on February 26, 2021, during a large-scale opposition rally, the police were unable to overcome the resistance of tens of thousands of people, and 11 tents were set up on Rustaveli Avenue. The police finally managed to restore the traffic on the blocked Rustaveli Avenue and asked the protesters to move the tents to the sidewalk, the request was fulfilled by the protest organizers, because by that time the number of protesters was reduced and it was no longer feasible to block Rustaveli Avenue. 

Conclusion

The area in front of the Parliament of Georgia and Rustaveli Avenue have been established as the main protest location for years. It is virtually impossible to break this tradition, and as long as the Parliament is functioning on Rustaveli Avenue, there will be constant protests by political and public groups. 

The government left with a sole option to relocate the Parliament (which Mikheil Saakashvili's government once tried to do) or accept fate and help the protest organizers maintain order in the surrounding area. Any other attempt, be it the inflating of a gnawed rubber shark, the erection of a Christmas tree or the planting of trees and shrubs to disrupt protests, will constantly lead to just irony and resentment from the public. 

The best solution for the government is to respect democratic values and the constitutional rights of citizens, which is why the tradition of seizing or stealing tents from civil activists in front of the Parliament should be left in the dark past.

The article has been prepared by Human Rights Centre (HRC) within the frameworks of the project “Right to Peaceful Assembly and other Civic Rights during Covid 19 pandemic in Georgia”. The project is supported by the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law Stichting (ECNL) under the INSPIRES program. It is made possible by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and financed by USAID.

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