How visit of "Orthodox" Russian delegation to Georgia led to mass protests in Tbilisi
June 19, 2019. The beginning of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy held in Georgia. The Russian delegation is arriving at the parliament building in Tbilisi. Eleven years after the Georgian-Russian war of 2008, the Georgians again see deputies from Moscow chatting with their Georgian counterparts. A wave of bewilderment passes through the country. It's outrage, it's anger. Social networks are filled with questioning posts: “Who let the Russian deputies into the country?”; "Why?"; “How is this possible?"
Ambassador of Ukraine to Georgia Igor Dolgov leaves the session hall in protest. All TV channels, activists, journalists, and social networks support Dolgov's decision.
On June 20, 2019, head of the Russian delegation, Sergei Gavrilov, as president of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, opens the meeting from the position of the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament. Georgia froze. Some clung to their TV screens. The rest were already rushing to the Parliament with banners in their hands. Opposition parliamentarians, not hiding outrage, occupied the parliament rostrum and blocked the Russian MP from speaking further.
It is the Russian FSB border guards that keep encroaching on the Georgian land, moving their barbed wires tearing Georgia into two parts, farther and deeper into the country's territory.
This all could seem strange to readers in Russia had it not been for one “but”, which is not traditionally recalled in the Duma and other places but well remembered in Georgia. The whole world remembers. 20% of the Georgian territory is occupied by the Russian Federation. 20% of Georgian territories are Russian military bases. It is the Russian FSB border guards that keep encroaching on the Georgian land, moving their barbed wires tearing Georgia into two parts, farther and deeper into the country's territory. Recently, for example, one night, an elderly man went to bed, and the next morning, his garden was already cut off from the rest of his land plot by the so-called border with the so-called South Ossetia. Back in May, one of the families could not go to the funeral of a relative and say goodbye to him across the bridge separating Abkhazia with the rest of Georgia. Recall the citizens of Georgia Irakli Kvaratskhelia, Gigi Otkhozoria, and Archil Tatunashvili, who were killed directly on the occupation lines or in the KGB of the so-called South Ossetia after being abducted from the Georgian-controlled side. No one was held accountable. Tourism, khinkali, and wine are fine but the war, which began long before 2008 and is being waged to this day, lives in every Georgian home.
Another meter of Georgian land was just cut off, and the one who cut it off, recognized "independence", voted for it, and now wants to talk about faith and religion
With a full understanding of these facts, Sergey Gavrilov and his delegation nevertheless went to Georgia, knowing in advance how it will all end up. Let's go discuss Orthodoxy, right? Imagine how every Georgian felt when a State Duma deputy sat in the chair of the head of Georgian parliament? Another meter of Georgian land was just cut off, and the one who cut it off, recognized "independence", voted for it, and now wants to talk about faith and religion.
June 20. Daytime. The hotel where Gavrilov stays is surrounded by activists, journalists, residents of Tbilisi, who perceived the speaker of the Georgian parliament sitting in the chair as a shame to their country. A spit at their face. The Russian delegation is being forced to leave Georgia. No, they were not radicals. Ordinary people. The fact is that in Georgia, the names of Tatunashvili, Otkhozoria and other victims of the occupation are known to the whole country. Here, even all Ukrainian sailors who are imprisoned in Russia are known to everyone, just as those of other political prisoners. The actions of Russia in Georgia that are ongoing are being discussed here. Always. Tourism is okay, but politicians – never. Officials – never. "Orthodoxy" doesn't come from Russia.
The anger of the people from the "shame" that they were forced to experience while the state symbol of Georgia (the speaker’s chair) was occupied by the Russian deputy was quickly shifted toward the authorities who allowed the Russian State Duma representatives’ visit. The protest action suddenly shifted from Gavrilov's hotel to the parliament HQ. Tens of thousands of citizens demanded the resignation of the Speaker of Parliament. Yes, the authorities apologized and promised that all the perpetrators would be punished. Yes, the president, the prime minister, the speaker of parliament appealed to the citizens, stating that this visit was a mistake and measures would be taken. But it was too late. The pain lives too deep. Too big are the wounds inflicted by the Kremlin on the citizens of Georgia.
The anger of the people from the "shame" that they were forced to experience while the state symbol of Georgia (the speaker’s chair) was occupied by the Russian deputy was quickly shifted toward the authorities who allowed the Russian State Duma representatives’ visit.
I watched Georgians arrive at the parliament HQ at night. Some activists attempted to break through to parliament cordons to hold the authorities accountable, but instead of providing an explanation, for the first time in many years, the government authorized the use of force. Shots were fired in the center of Tbilisi. Tear gas. Smoke. Rubber bullets. People wounded. Two of them lost their eyes in clashes. People are seen running, covering their mouths and noses with their hands, not to breathe in smoke. The whole country is watching the events on their TVs. People keep returning to places they had just fled. Now, no one is willing to give up, neither to the Russian State Duma, nor to their own government. No one.
Water cannons. Special forces. By morning, the protest was crushed. Nearly a hundred of detainees. More rallies have been announced.
The events that unfolded overnight Friday, June 21, will be remembered in Georgia and beyond. It will surely be remembered by the authorities (as of June 21, no one knows how much time these authorities have until they are forced to go). The legitimacy of a government that has used force against its people is a big question. Georgia does not disperse rallies. In Georgia, authorities apologize to protesters and take steps forward. What happened now will have far-reaching consequences and will certainly affect the future of Georgia and the one who will lead the country in the near future. Let me remind you that elections are approaching in Georgia and on this night many people have already made their choice, not waiting for the 2020 election campaign.
By the way, Georgia’s partners in the U.S. and the European Union have long been discussing on the sideline their distrust of the Georgian government and its leader, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. The final test for democracy should have been the election of 2020, since the authorities had conducted all the recent election campaigns with a huge number of violations. But now, after the use of force, not against activists who tried to enter the parliament, but against all those who stood peacefully in the squares, the test may have come early. It is already clear that the government of the "Georgian Dream" flunked it. It remains to wait for the official results.
These days, Ivanishvili and the team went for the extreme measures, showing what this power means for them and how ready they are to defend it literally with weapons in their hands.
Yegor Kuroptev is an author of the "Borderline Zone" project, a representative of the Free Russia Foundation in the South Caucasus.