Wednesday, April 29, 2009

No justice in cellblock Georgia

Stepping outside of the Marriott Hotel in Tbilisi late at night on April 21, we encountered a 24-hour occupation of Rustaveli Avenue in front of the Georgian parliament building, reportedly four days old.

The street is occupied by at least 125 metal-framed boxes, dimensions approximately 6 feet wide by 6 feet high by 4 feet deep. Each box is covered with a plastic banner fabric labeled in large red English letters, "CELL," and a unique identifying number. Each cell is occupied by one or more people gathered together on wooden pallets, where they may spend the night.

Occupation of the public square is the latest attempt by citizenry opposed to the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been in power since January 25, 2004, and who won re-election in November 2008. Opposition meetings started last November in the wake of the devastating Russian invasion of Georgia last August.

The war was triggered when Saakashvili ordered a military attack on breakaway province of South Ossetia, populated by an ethnic minority that has had the support of Moscow since Georgia gained its independence with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. So when Georgian troops attacked South Ossetia, Russia seized the opportunity to reassert its imperial power and punish the U.S.-backed Saakashvili, who seeks to have Georgia join the NATO alliance.

Months before the Russian invasion, Saakashvili had undermined his support by using authoritarian tactics against his former allies, including police violence and a state crackdown on independent media. Since the war, the opposition has only grown.

Today, the spirit of the mixed-age crowd occupying Rustaveli Avenue is friendly, festive and peaceable, though people are eager for events to unfold. We interviewed four English-speaking Georgians: Vakkho, age 17; George, age 17; Archil, age 18; and Zura, age 18.

"The cells indicate all of Georgia is in a cell," said Archil. "We are living in prisons. These people are here and don't need to live with injustice. It's a protest of the government, not our country." The young men agreed the protests will remain until Saakashvili resigns. They said protesters have been beaten by police at night, in and around the cell structures.

Local newspapers proclaim international support for Saakashvili as he faces protests at home. On April 17, Georgia Today quoted Saakashvili as saying: "Our foreign minister and the U.S. secretary of state are meeting each other for already second time in a month. The U.S. has such relations with only very few countries."

Saakashvili noted, however, that his close relations with the U.S. dated to the Bush administration. Indeed, Tbilisi has a "George Bush Street." As Saakashvili said to Georgia Today: "I admire American ideas. I used to idealize America under Bush when ideas were above pragmatic politics."

George said the protests are nationwide, not just in Tbilisi. "More cells are being brought in," he said. "There will be 500."

According to George and his friends, the cells were originally an idea from Georgian pop star Giorgi Gachechiladze, known as Utsnobi (meaning "unknown" or "stranger"), the brother of opposition leader and 2008 presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze.

Gachechiladze reportedly lived in one of the cells for several months as a protest of Saakashvili's government in 2007. He was one of four activists who began a hunger strike to demand early parliamentary elections. He was also injured during the protests.

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Georgians seek to enjoy freedoms they know are available elsewhere in the world. "There is no justice," Archil said. "We want freedom of expression. People were beaten in the streets last night. We have two television stations that are government controlled."

A large banner on the protesters' main street stage features photos of five Georgians reportedly killed by security police during previous protests. As George said:

People can't speak or protest. People are beaten if they are not in groups. Many people--80 examples--were hurt in this week. They are beaten because they were sitting here, at night. The television did not show this. They (the reporters) were frightened. They can't report this because they are threatened.

The number of protesters in the street before parliament swelled at about 3 p.m. Wednesday, covering Rustaveli Avenue, as people gathered to hear speeches from the stage. As the speakers took their turns, men strung their cell frames with ropes to mimic prison cell bars.

Opinions about Saakashvili heightened when his government invaded South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, claiming it was a "breakaway province." Some speculated the Ossetia invasion was calculated to draw attention away from his sagging popular support.

In response to the Ossetia invasion, Russian troops entered Georgia (August 2008). Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told the Georgian Times on 13 April, "If I were Saakashvili, I would have resigned. He has no right to be the president of the country after making so many mistakes and shedding so many tears and so much blood."

George, the young protest supporter, said, "The opposition's face is the people. We want free elections. We don't want one leader. We are the leaders. We must have leaders as they do in Europe, where the leaders are the people, who are not kings."

Archil agreed. "We want parliamentary governance, with elections that don't create monarchs or kings, but a full parliament."

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