‘We don’t shoot at our own people’ On the ground during violent clashes with police at Tbilisi’s anti-Russian protest
On the evening of June 20, on Shota Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi, just outside the Georgian Parliament building, at least 10,000 people gathered for a protest. They didn’t leave until after midnight. The cause of the unrest was a speech in Parliament by Russian State Duma deputy Sergey Gavrilov, who sat in the speaker’s chair and spoke Russian, before he was interrupted by Georgia’s opposition. Demonstrators later burned Russian flags and called Russia an occupier. When activists tried to seize the Parliament, police responded harshly, firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Hundreds of people, including dozens of police officers, were injured. On special assignment for Meduza, journalist Maria Latsinskaya explains what happened that night in Tbilisi, and how there’s now talk of another revolution on the horizon.
“A bunch of idiots and nationalists. Why do you want to go there?” my taxi driver says annoyedly, on the way to the Parliament building. He’s convinced that the people assembled on Shota Rustaveli Avenue are “working according to a training manual,” and the most aggressive of them are under the influence of drugs. Before saying goodbye, he asks me to be careful, and tells me to call him, if I run into any problems.
The taxi can’t make it all the way to the Parliament building, because Shota Rustaveli Avenue — Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare — has been blocked off by police since seven o’clock in the evening. At 11:00 p.m., cars could still only get as close as the nearby back alleys and side streets, though many protesters had left the square by then. Literally a block from the demonstration, you couldn’t sense at all that a major protest was underway outside the Parliament — people (maybe a few more than usual) were just hanging out on a summer evening near Georgia's National Gallery. Closer to Shota Rustaveli Avenue, however, the applause, whistling, and cries of “Sakartvelo!” (“Georgia!”) started to reach you. People slowly and calmly made their way toward the epicenter.
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The atmosphere on the avenue is like a national holiday, with people wrapping themselves in Georgia’s flag and many waving the country’s red and white banner. There are many young people. The only thing that separates it from a holiday are the people wearing t-shirts that said things like “Russia is an occupier” and “Russia has occupied 20 percent of my country,” as well as several signs with obscenities addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the middle of the crowd, directly across from the Parliament, a vendor sells flags, popcorn, and seeds. She’d set up shop before the protests started, and never stopped. She still has customers, including many young people, who stand around drinking beer and carrying on lively conversations in Georgian.
Most of the people who have assembled are regular kids who don't look at all like experienced activists, radical nationalists, or dangerous revolutionaries. These are ordinary citizens unhappy with the actions of the authorities.
A young man named Goga has been outside the Parliament since earlier that evening. “I’m here because I am a Georgian. And what’s happening right now is a very Georgian thing. We don’t want a government that embraces Russia. We’re talking about our occupier,” he says. Opponents often say “Georgian Dream” (the country’s ruling political party since 2012) and President Salome Zourabichvili are “pro-Russian.” In Georgian politics, criticizing your rivals often boils down to accusations of loyalty to Moscow. Under the political dominance of Georgian Dream, relations with Russia have in fact warmed, leading to the resumption of air traffic and the end of Russia’s sanctions on Georgian wine imports.
In the public square outside the Parliament building, the crowd is far denser than in the road. The onslaught of demonstrators has even damaged the tents set up late last year by the “Strength in Unity” movement (which calls itself an “anti-occupation” force and demands early parliamentary elections), along with their flags of Poland, Lithuania, the United States, the UN, and NATO. Thousands of people have now come to the square to support the same demands, but the opposition symbol seems out of place. As the crowd thrusts forward, several men near the steps of the Parliament try to set up one of the tents, but their efforts are in vain: more people come rushing in, and after a few minutes the tent is finally crushed.
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The most active demonstrators take up positions at the stairs of the Parliament building. These people are older men who periodically lead the crowd in applause, whistling, and chants.
Among the protesters, at the head of the crowd, there’s David Katsarava, the leader of the “Strength in Unity” movement (the same group whose tents were flattened). His activists oppose Russia’s “creeping occupation” at the border with South Ossetia. Hours earlier, Katsarava brought a piece of barbed wire from the village of Atotsi (near the “occupation line” at the boundary with South Ossetia) as a “gift” for Russian State Duma deputy Sergey Gavrilov. This souvenir is meant to symbolize Georgia's lost territory. Random protesters approach Katsarava to shake his hand and embrace him. Later on, he turns and moves even closer to the Parliament’s entrance.
The cause of this evening’s rage is Gavrilov’s speech at the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy — particularly the Russian lawmaker’s decision to speak Russian and sit in the speaker’s chair (Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze later called this a “procedural error”). To make matters worse, Gavrilov voted in favor of recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which Georgia and most of the world rejects). On the other hand, Gavrilov has publicly emphasized that he hasn’t set foot in either breakaway republic since before the 2008 war.
Joining Katsarava and his associates at the front line against the police are supporters of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and members of Georgia’s National Democratic Party and the “Girchi” party. Writing on Facebook from his new home in Ukraine, Saakashvili has endorsed the protest, calling on the police to disobey their orders and “cross over to the side of the people.”
Two hours earlier, a few people managed to infiltrate the building, and some journalists reported that the storming of the Parliament was underway. In fact, the police managed to remove those who got inside, and the authorities then secured the building. Afterwards, protesters and police took up fixed positions outside. Demonstrators managed several times to grab away officers’ riot shields and batons, passing them backwards over the crowd. In the middle of the street, there was even a pile of trophies seized from the police.
The demonstrators didn’t stop at trying to disarm the authorities. Later on, the officers found themselves in the path of plastic bottles filled with water, launched from the crowd.
“I wasn’t far from the Parliament today, and I came here immediately, as soon as I heard about what happened. We are offended by what [speaker Irakli] Kobakhidze did, because the Russian authorities really have occupied our country. But I’m not an activist. I came here to watch this show,” says Gvantsa. As the shouting grows louder and even more bottles start flying at the police, she adds, “I don’t think what the protesters are doing now is good. You can’t achieve your goals through violence.” She says Saakashvili’s supporters are most likely “fueling” these more aggressive demonstrators. She believes their actions resemble a deliberate provocation designed to spark a new revolution in Georgia.
Police officers lead away one protester, grabbing him by the arms. Some men, flushed and sweaty from the June heat, retreat voluntarily from the front line — they’re exhausted. Others give them water to wash off and quench their thirst, and then the men dive back into the crowd, urging people to join them. For a moment, it seems like the protesters need just a few seconds more to sweep aside the police and seize the Parliament.
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Some ways from the Parliament building, you’d still never know there was a mass protest happening. Near the National Gallery, on the other side of the public square, a florist tells passersby about her bouquets for sale, apparently unimpressed by the events outside the legislature.
Suddenly, at least five pops ring out above the crowd on Rustaveli Avenue. Looking up, you can make out the smoke trails of little projectiles that look like signal flares. They come down somewhere toward the Museum of Fine Arts, and a few seconds later it’s clear that this is tear gas. Covering their mouths and faces with their shirts, hands, and any rags they can find, some of the demonstrators run into the adjacent streets and down the avenue, farther from the Parliament, retreating over the sounds of trampled broken glass (apparently the remains of abandoned beer bottles).
After a couple of minutes of calm, the protesters again converge outside the Parliament, and once again there’s a series of bright flashes that envelops the street in a dense gray smoke. This process repeats several times: demonstrators approach the Parliament, the police respond with smoke bombs and tear gas, and the protesters retreat. Each time, more of the protesters are wearing medical masks and t-shirts tied around their faces.
A visiting Russian businessman who came to the square (and who asked Meduza not to reveal his name) says he managed to “cry from the gas.” He holds out a canister that exploded near him. Beside him his one of his colleagues, a Georgian man, whom he calls “an experienced activist.” “But this is the first time he’s seen the use of gas and smoke bombs in Georgia,” the Russian businessman says. His Georgian companion then says he needs to go find his friends, says goodbye, and rushes toward the crowd near the Parliament. The police are now firing rubber bullets at protesters.
A middle-aged man in a hat hears us, throws up his hands, sighs loudly, and explains in broken Russian, “This isn’t the Georgian way. To do this. There’s never been something like this, where they shot at their own people. Now we’ll have to get it [the government’s resignation].” It now seems the demonstrators won’t be satisfied with the resignation of the Parliament’s speaker and the heads of Georgia’s law-enforcement agencies — they want the whole government out.
“This is the first protest I’ve ever attended in my life. I didn’t come out last year or before that. But I know this is the first time the current government has resorted to shooting,” says a young man named David. He has Georgia’s flag in his hands. David says he’s been standing outside Parliament since three o’clock in the afternoon, and he doesn’t intend to leave, until the demonstrators’ demands are met. “This isn’t about the war of Russians and Georgians — it’s politics, and our Parliament made a big mistake,” he says.
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Not everyone in the crowd welcomes the sound of Russian being spoken. A woman passing by shouts that Georgians live in Georgia, and Russians should go back to Russia. When I try to explain that the Russian journalists here are covering the unfolding events, she clenches her teeth and says, “So go and report them back home!”
The ongoing bombardment of smoke bombs is now affecting not just the space outside Parliament and part of Rustaveli Avenue, but also some of the side streets. Several “rockets” hit the Kashveti Church, where a group of protesters is arguing among themselves in the courtyard, before a priest comes out and calms everyone down. Another group rushes past, carrying a shirtless man bleeding from the stomach, probably wounded by a rubber bullet. Back on Rustaveli Avenue, a woman’s scream is muffled by the wailing of ambulance sirens.
The police don’t let up, forcing people to flee farther from the Parliament. On one street, a group of men at first sarcastically applauds the police, and then tries to grab the officers by their uniforms. Their comrades start pulling them away, saying that they need to run even farther up the avenue: water cannons have arrived to reinforce the police, who have started arresting protesters and firing smoke bombs and tear gas more accurately down side streets.
Most of the remaining demonstrators have taken refuge at 9 April Park, in the National Gallery’s courtyard. After a few more minutes, however, the tear gas reaches this area, as well.
“Do you realize that it’s not safe to be speaking Russian on these streets? If you need any help, just let me know,” David says, still clutching his Georgian flag.
By the middle of the night, nearly everyone who joined the mass protest and violent clashes with police has vanished from Rustaveli Avenue and its side streets. Small groups of mostly shirtless men, are still making isolated attempts to return to the Parliament building. They speak heatedly and chain smoke. Some appeal to the police, trying in vain to persuade them to come over to the demonstrators’ side.
Like David, these activists are determined not to give up. After midnight, the demonstrators learn that the opposition has announced a new rally at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 21. Some of the most committed protesters want to remain on the streets until then, despite the harsh police response. A man runs by and shouts at me, “Do you get this sort of thing in Russia?”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock