I sat down this Saturday afternoon (June 22) with a group of young people here in Tbilisi – some of my university students and some of their friends – to talk about the protest actions of the last days taking place here in the capital.
To recap, on June 20, a Russian Member of Parliament, Sergei Gavrilov, heading the Russian delegation for the Orthodox Assembly taking place in Tbilisi, appeared in the Parliament of Georgia and sat in the Parliamentary Speaker’s chair and gave an address in Russian. Gavrilov is a member of the Russian Communist Party and has openly supported the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A mass protest immediately ensued, culminating in demonstrators trying to storm the Parliament and law enforcement cracking down hard with tear gas, water cannons and firing off rubber bullets. Well over 200 people were hurt – 40 with grave injuries including two young people who lost their sight after sustaining wounds to the face – and over 300 protestors arrested and imprisoned. The protests are continuing every day with demonstrators demanding the resignation of the Minister of Internal Affairs, parliamentary elections based on a proportional representation voting system and the release of the detained protestors from prison.
Our meeting was an open discussion where everyone was encouraged to give their opinions and express their concerns. As conversations unfolded, three main areas of focus and frustration came to the forefront: the government, the police and the Orthodox Church.
Criticism was particularly strong against the government:
“This government is [expletive deleted],” said Salome, age 19. “They are not doing the right things. You give the chair to a Russian MP and he speaks in Russian? I never liked this government and I didn’t like the old one, either,” she added. “I hate [Prime Minister] Bakhtadze. I hate him more than Trump but less than Putin. He thinks we are all stupid.”
“What happened does not mean that the government is pro-Russian,” said Shako, age 20, echoing Salome’s comments about the errors on the part of the government. “It means that the government is messed up. They made and make mistakes. This is clear. We have a long history with Russia whether we like it or not.”
“In my opinion, the government is pro-Russian,” said Guga, age 19. “Gakharia [the Minister of Internal Affairs] has business in Russia. To have business in Russia means that you have to cooperate with Putin."
At the same time, Bidzina [Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream Party Chair] owns part of Gazprom.
“Guga is right,” added Dimitri, age 19. “We have a pro-Russian government. Russia has influence here. Gakharia has a Russian passport, he returned to Tbilisi from Russia and he speaks Georgian with a Russian accent. We have a pro-Russian government here.”
Criticism continued against the police.
“I was at the first night of the protest,” Dimitri continued. “The government is not capable of running this country and it is turning Georgia into a [expletive deleted]. They brought a Russian MP to Parliament and he sat in the Speaker’s chair and he spoke in Russian! I could not believe this when I saw it. This was the last line to cross for the Georgian people and they crossed it. This made everyone so incredibly angry. This is what led to the protest. We protested the regime of Russian occupation and the regime of our own government. The reaction of the police was not expected. Bakhtadze says that the police did not use tear gas or bullets. But they did! I saw it! The reaction was heavy. They chased people up Rustaveli Avenue all the way from the Parliament to the Concert Hall. There were tear gas explosions. Forty-or-so policemen were running after young people."
Policemen were physically beating people.
“It was possible for the police to just stop the protestors from entering the Parliament. There was this possibility,” said Salome. “But instead, they were deliberately shouting in people’s faces like a provocation. You know, the police love being police. I mean, they are very into their roles. They act with their own ideas. They point and shoot. They think that they are in a movie.”
“Go back to the events of [martial law] in 2007,” added Shako. “It was the same heavy handedness.”
“The police did not act with any fairness towards the protesters,” said Guga.
The Orthodox Church was also strongly criticized.
“The Orthodox Church invited the Russian Members of Parliament to come for the Assembly in cooperation with the government. This was a mistake on the part of the Orthodox Church. It is directly connected to Tbilisi Pride, too. The timing of the two events was not a coincidence,” said Guga.
“And when the police really cracked down hard,” added Salome, “people were running away and trying to go inside churches for safety. But the churches closed their doors and said to the demonstrators ‘Why do you only come here when there is a protest?’ They were turning people away.”
“Kashveti Church [across from the Parliament] also closed its doors to the protesters,” added Guga.
As the discussion was winding down after several hours, I asked everyone directly: “Do you trust the government?”
“What?! No!,” said Tornike, age 20. “The government is doing what it is told to do. The government is detached from the people. Did anyone really think this government would be any different from the old one?”
I have no belief in the opposition. I have no belief in the current government. They are all super [expletive deleted]. There is no trust in anyone.
I also asked everyone directly: “Do you trust the police?”
“The police were pleased with their violence,” continued Shako. “They liked the fact that they had power and they used this power to injure people.”
“They think they can do what they want,” said Tornike. “I hate our police more than I hate our government. The police have orders to shoot you. And they will shoot you. They do not give a [expletive deleted]."
“The police all abused their power,” said everyone talking at the same time. “We have no trust in the police. We have no faith in the police.”
Finally, I asked them all: “Do you trust the Orthodox Church?”
“The Church is worse than the government,” everyone said, also all talking at the same time. “The Church was involved in this situation. The Church has a huge influence here. The Church invited the Orthodox Assembly members. The Church is the strongest power here.”
From the anger and the frustration at the events of the last days, however, one positive point emerged during our conversations and beautifully so.
We Georgians let ourselves be manipulated. We need to stop fighting against each other. Our minds should be our weapons.
The protests show no signs of stopping.
*Photo credits: Nikoloz Urushadze PH