Sat, 11 Jul 2020

Georgian protesters regroup, insist on cultured approach

23 Nov 2019, 04:49 GMT+10

A young man sat down before a row of riot police and began playing the flute. His plaintive tune pierced through the air, bringing tears to the eyes of the young protesters who were facing off against the cops. When the music stopped, a single voice from among the riot police requested an encore.

This was one brief, surreal moment amid the chaos of November 18's police crackdown on Georgia's newly revived protest campaign to take down the ruling Georgian Dream party and its billionaire chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

The leaders of the protest movement take pride in their cultured approach: No burning cars, gilets jaunes-style, or vandalizing property like in Hong Kong. Since the protests kicked off in June, the young activists taking part have been cleaning up the streets they occupy, picking up trash including cigarette butts, often in coordination with police.

The "Shame" movement, which has been the main organizer of the protests, is led by a group of young, upper-middle-class intellectuals and professionals, who shun populist slogans and try to start cerebral conversations about Georgia's future. The group formed in June to help coordinate the protests that erupted following a Russian lawmaker's appearance in parliament. But many of the members had previously been active in other protest movements, such as last year's protests against a heavy-handed drug raid on the city's most famous nightclub.

Since the November 18 crackdown, Shame movement leaders have been gathering at a downtown apartment to plan their next moves. Sitting in a circle they brainstorm ideas for more rallies and online campaigns, cracking jokes and keeping an eye on the news. They draw inspiration from protest movements around the world, including in Hong Kong - vandalism notwithstanding. "It is so well-organized and creative there," Shota Dighmelashvili, a business magazine editor by day who also has a leading role in Shame, told Eurasianet.

Following the November 18 dispersal of protesters from around the parliament building, Shame and the other organizers are regrouping. The protests took a pause, but organizers say they will return to parliament on November 25 and weekly after that. The plan is to wear down the authorities with peaceful protests "until we free Georgia, which has been captured by an oligarch," Dighmelashvili said, referring to Ivanishvili.

The group counts as one of its successes that it has kept the protests out of the control of opposition political parties, of which most Georgians hold a dim view. "In Georgia, people used to go to demonstrations organized by politicians. What we achieved is that now politicians come to the demonstrations organized by people," Dighmelashvili said.

Since November 18, different forces have taken different approaches. Some opposition parties continued a campaign of sealing government offices with padlocks and chains to disrupt, symbolically or literally, the government's work, forcing police to follow them around with bolt cutters. "If a lock war is what you want, a lock war you will get," said Roman Gotsiridze, a member of the United National Movement party, as he wrapped a cable lock around the doors to parliament.

Other politicians and activists rallied in front of the Georgian Dream headquarters, or at a courthouse where protesters who had been detained on November 18 were being tried.

All the forces, though, plan to reunite on November 25. "We will keep holding rallies, keep trying to block the government, and they will have to break us up by force each time they want to use the parliament," Dighmelashvili said.

The protests broke out again on November 15 following Ivanishvili's backtracking on a promise he made at the height of the protests in June: to reform the country's electoral law, which gives the ruling party a leg up in parliamentary elections. But, possibly with a view to the party's sagging prospects ahead of elections next year, party members voted down the reform bill. Opponents across a wide ideological spectrum saw it as a power grab.

Nearly all Georgia's opposition groups joined the revived rallies to call for snap elections, and the Shame movement came up with the slogan "All Against One" to capture that diversity, welcoming even groups they consider opposed to their ultimate goal of making Georgia into an unwaveringly pro-Western, modern democracy.

Dighmelashvili, who has been a prominent presence at most of the rallies since June, said he did not intend to be a protest leader. "We gathered in front of the parliament then. We were all angry, but we were not well organized. Someone had to say something, so I grabbed the microphone, and this is how I became one of the leaders," he told Eurasianet.

"Ideally, I thought of myself as a Mad Max-kind of character, who rides in on a bike, fixes everything and drives off," he said. Now, though, he and his comrades are gearing up for a long and complicated fight with the government, which has forcefully broken up the protests twice already this year.

Along with uniting the opposition, protest organizers count as a success their ability to sow discord inside Georgian Dream: several of its more liberal members quit the party in protest after the failure to pass the election law.

"The fact that everyone who had a command of English and computer skills quit the party is significant progress and we expect more of it," said Dighmelashvili, playing on a common phrase in Georgian job ads that has become a jokey way to describe a modern person.

Ivanishvili has a wide variety of tools at his disposal as he battles the opposition: control of all branches of the government, loyal media, internet trolls, and his own substantial wealth. But Dighmelashvili believes that there is a limit to how far Ivanishvili will go. "He can't pull a Gaddafi or a Putin," he said. "It won't work in Georgia."

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