Saturday, July 02, 2005

Another Test For Georgia

Eurasianet reports on fighting that broke out in the Georgian Parliament last week as well as on the streets of Tbilisi. The scenes were ugly but were interesting in that once again, events can be used by detractors of the November 2003 Rose Revolution in Armenia's northern neighbor to criticize pro-democracy movements in the South Caucasus.

Eurasianet says that chain of events was sparked by the 28 June arrest of Aleko Davitashvili, president of the Georgian Wrestling Federation, who along with his brother and a Georgian Judo champion were sentenced to 3 months pre-trial detention. They have been accused of blackmailing a Greek businessman although the three men deny the charges.

Tension escalated soon after the court announced the sentence. Television cameras in the courtroom relayed chaotic images of what appeared to be a brawl between supporters of the accused and court officials. Upon leaving the court, several dozen wrestlers and other supporters went on to hold a rally on nearby Rustaveli Avenue, effectively blocking Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare. When attempts by regular police to disperse the crowd failed, riot police were called to the scene. As on-lookers cried "Shame on you," dozens of demonstrators were arrested amid a string of violent scuffles.

Opposition MPs and activists then arrived at the scene and condemned the police crackdown. Yesterday, a press conference was held in which demands that the Minister of Interior of Georgia, Vano Merabishvili, were voiced. This comes at the same time as opposition criticism of a law that allows the Mayor of Tbilisi to be elected by the city council and pledges to boycott local electtions scheduled for next year. However, some opponents of the government have already warned that the skirmishes should not be exploited for political purposes.

One Olympic gold medalist, who supports the Wrestling Federation detainees, however, has already called on the opposition to avoid adding the Rustaveli Avenue demonstration to its list of complaints against the government. "I know we behaved badly. The president of Georgia is doing more for the development of Georgian sport than anybody before him, and he most of all doesn’t deserve this," the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported weightlifter Giorgi Asanidze as saying at a July 1 press conference. "We don’t need the interference of political parties. In sports, we’ll take care of things. Let all the parties leave us alone."

In Armenia, of course, the footage of riot police on the streets of Tbilisi and fisticuffs in the National Assembly were seized upon by state-controlled Public TV and shown in its entirety. Ever since the 2003 Rose revolution in Georgia, supporters of the government and president here have used any stick they can find to beat what many outside observers believe is the emergence of real democratic change. In contrast, Armenia is considered an authoritarian state and Azerbaijan, a dictatorship.

More interesting, however, is the way in which in Georgia, sportsmen who break the law are prosecuted whereas in Armenia, they serve the authorities. On 5 April last year, wrestlers employed by oligarchs close to the government beat journalists and smashed their cameras on the streets of Yerevan in full view of police. They were also instrumental in the severe beating of a political activist, Ashot Manucharian. They are also implicated in various high level shoot-outs on the streets of the Armenian capital and in recent months, the opposition press has declared that the richest man in the country, MP, former arm wrestler and Chairman of the Armenian Olympic Committee, Gagik Tsarukian (AKA Dodi Gago) is as powerful as the President.

And of course, the 12 /13 April brutal suppression of an opposition protest staged on Yerevan's central Baghramian Avenue in the early hours of the morning wasn't televised at all, especially as the Deputy Head of Police, Hovannes Varian, is alleged to have personally beaten journalists himself. There were no calls from the Armenian Parliament for his resignation. Indeed, although the politically motivated crackdown was severely criticized by Human Rights Watch, it was considered that the police were fulfilling their duty not as upholders of the law but as protectors of the government against the people.

Nevertheless, while these two incidents represent the difference between a more democratic Georgia and what activists describe as a police state in Armenia, there is no doubt that serious concerns are emerging with regards to processes underway in Tbilisi. However, would that such concerns emerge in Armenia. While last year's incident in Armenia was an unprovoked attack on peaceful demonstrators, events in Georgia came after protestors resisted arrest. The TV media also covered the incidents -- unlike Armenia where all the TV stations are controlled by those closest to the government.

"The government was absolutely right to use force against those resisting arrest. You cannot create mass protest on the main street because you don’t like the verdict," commented Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. While calling for the government to investigate "individual cases of excessive force," Rondeli criticized opposition members for taking up the protestors’ cause.

Anyway, it's yet another test for post-revolution Georgia and unfortunate as well as concerning to hear from foreigners based in Tbilisi, and those who frequently visit, that international organizations are now unhappy with what is happening there. The full article can be read online here. Civil Georgia also covers the unfolding story on their web site.

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