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The March for Europe in Tbilisi. June 24, 2022

Going home — to Europe Georgians are calling for their government to resign after it failed to receive EU candidate status. Meduza reports from Tbilisi

Source: Meduza
The March for Europe in Tbilisi. June 24, 2022
The March for Europe in Tbilisi. June 24, 2022
Zurab Kurtsikidze / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

In mid-June, the European Commission voted against recommending that Georgia recieve EU candidate status, recommending instead that it be granted the “European perspective.” Now, if Georgia wants to join the EU, it will have to take specific steps that, according to the EU, will strengthen its democracy. After the announcement, protesters from Georgia’s Sirtskhvilia (“Shame”) movement led thousands of people in a rally they called Going Home — to Europe. Another rally followed the European Parliament’s official refusal to grant the country EU status. That time, the protesters demanded the resignation of the government — and gave them an ultimatum.

On June 3, 2022, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced that the country had completed its “homework” — the conditions for EU membership — and was now waiting for the European Commission’s decision. Georgia had begun its application for EU candidate status on March 3 — just a week after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine — and completed the required questionnaire by May 10, taking far less than the usual three months countries usually spend. After that, it was up to the European Commission to evaluate the responses and decide whether to recommend that the European Council grant Georgia candidate status, in which case accession negotiations could begin.

George Mchedlishvili, an international relations professor at Tbilisi’s European University, noted that Georgia is ahead of both Ukraine and Moldova in terms of economic reform, but that the process has faltered in recent years — and that freedom of speech has begun to decline.

According to Mchedlishvili, one sign of this decline was the conviction of politician and businessman Nika Gvaramia. On May 16, Gvaramia, the former general director of the Georgian opposition TV network Mtavari Arkhi, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on charges of abusing power while leading a private enterprise. The charges stemmed from his time as the head of a different opposition channel, Rustavi 2, which he led from 2016 to 2019.

Gvaramia’s sentence sparked heated discussion in Georgia. Less than a month after the conviction, on June 8, the EU passed a resolution on “violations of media freedom and the safety of journalists” in Georgia. In addition to Gvaramia and Saakashvili, the resolution mentioned an attack on journalists that occured on July 5, 2021. That day, over 50 people, most of whom worked in the media, came under attack by far-right groups who were protesting a gay pride march. Alexander Lashkarava, a camera operator for the TV channel Pirveli, died five days after the attacks, where a bone in his face was broken. Journalists reported at the time that the presumed cause of death was a thromboembolism caused by injuries. The Georgian Interior Ministry later claimed that Lashkarava’s death was caused by a drug overdose.

The EU blamed the events on Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian billionaire who led the party Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia until 2021. Part of the resolution read:

The European Parliament expresses its concern with the role played by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili in the Georgian politics, especially the ongoing trend of nomination of his close former associates to the highest positions in the country, thanks to which he retains high level of control over the government and its decisions, including those on politically-motivated persecution of journalist supporting the opposition.

[...] The European Parliament therefore calls on the Council to consider imposing personal sanctions on Mr Ivanishvili as the person directly responsible for current backsliding in the areas of media freedom.

Last year, 66-year-old Ivanishvili announced his resignation from politics, citing his age. But as Nodar Rukhadze, one of the founders of the Sirtskhvilia movement, explained to Meduza, Ivanishvili continues to wield influence over the country through his close friends. Current Foreign Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri, for example, served for years as Ivanishvili’s personal bodyguard; Health Minister Zurab Azarashvili used to manage a branch of the bank he owns, and Prosecutor General Shalva Tadumadze previously worked as his lawyer.

Bidzina Ivanishvili
David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

“Bidzina Ivanishvili is a Russian oligarch. He made his entire fortune in Russia, and his number one goal is to preserve his wealth, to keep it untouchable. He understands that the only way to achieve that goal is to stay in Georgia and stay on the political course he’s on,” said Rukhadze.

In 2011, Ivanishvili announced he was selling his Russian business and renouncing his Russian citizenship. In late April 2022, Transparency International’s Georgian office released an investigation that found Ivanishvili had continued to manage his business in Russia through offshore accounts, relatives, and representatives. The authors concluded that Georgia’s “internal security” and domestic politics were “under threat” due to Ivanishvili’s actions.

On June 17, the European Commission put out a statement recommending that EU candidate status be granted to Ukraine and Moldova, but not to Georgia, as the latter had not fulfilled the necessary conditions to join the union.

George Mchedlishvili told Meduza that the EU’s decision was based less on Nika Gvaramia’s prison sentence or the events of July 5, 2021, than on the public’s loss of trust in Georgia’s government. According to him, in recent years, Georgia has undergone a “small regression” with regard to democracy, political pluralism, and independent institutions. Nepotism, vote-buying, and embezzling have all been on the rise.

On the day the EU’s resolution was published, the Sirtskhvilia movement announced a rally and a march in support of EU membership in the center of Tbilisi. The ruling party, unsupportive of the protest, declared the opposition’s actions “destructive,” claiming they would “lead to society’s polarization."

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‘Follow the Russian warship’

On the evening of June 20, between 30 and 50 thousand people gathered outside of the Georgian Parliament building in the center of Tbilisi. They carried the flags of Georgia and the EU. A number of activists in the crowd distributed small signs that read, “We are Europe.” The Anthem of Europe was followed by the Ukrainian national anthem, then by the Georgian one. A large screen in the middle of the square alternated between the EU, Georgian, Ukrainian, and Moldovan flags.

Protesters in Tbilisi. June 20, 2022
Denis Kaminev / Meduza

Sulkhan-Saba, Ilia Chavchavadze, Niko Nikoladze, and Vazha-Pshavela, the heroes of April 9, and the heroes fighting for our freedom in Ukraine… Today, the oligarch Ivanishvili stands opposed to them, his foot stuck in the doors we want to pass through — the doors of Europe, a place he won’t let us enter!” Georgian writer Lasha Bugadze said from the stage.

Dozens of protesters held anti-Ivanishvili signs, many of which showed the oligarch next to Vladimir Putin. Some of them read, “I’m European. Therefore [Ivanishvili can] follow the Russian warship.”

Several of the protesters were wearing t-shirts that read, “Russia occupies 20 percent of my country” and had maps showing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Others held signs calling for greater press freedom in Georgia, such as one that read, “Media under attack.”

Protesters in Tbilisi. June 20, 2022
Denis Kaminev / Meduza
Denis Kaminev / Meduza
Denis Kaminev / Meduza
Denis Kaminev / Meduza

Towards the end of the rally, activists announced the creation of a new movement called Going Home — to Europe, the goal of which would be to ensure that Georgia fulfills the EU’s membership conditions. The rally ended with a march through Tbilisi, with protesters chanting “Long live Georgia!” and “Fuck Putin!”

‘Come — we’ll help you!’

Three days later, the European Parliament voted 529 to 45 in favor of granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status “without delay.” The same thing will presumably be done for Georgia — as soon as the country fulfills the conditions set by the European Commission.

The Sirtskhvilia movement soon announced another rally in support of EU membership for Georgia. This time, protesters, who numbered in the tens of thousands, laid out a clear list of demands to the authorities, including:

  • The resignation of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, whose actions in the government led to Georgia’s failure to qualify for EU candidate status, and
  • The formation of a new government, whose members will be elected by popular consensus, and which will commit to fulfilling the 12 points in the agreement brokered by the EU.

The protesters gave the authorities one week to meet their demands. If the government refused, they promised to lead a civil disobedience campaign.

georgians and the war in ukraine

‘Russia would do here what they did in Mariupol’ Why Georgia's response to the war has been feeble — despite months of pro-Ukraine protests in Tbilisi

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“The rally on June 20 was the largest in Tbilisi’s history. It was addressed not to the government, but to the European Commission,” Nodar Rukhadze told Meduza. “But on June 24, Georgia, unlike Moldova and Ukraine, received a negative answer, so on that day, we demanded our government’s resignation. We don’t believe the government of the Russian oligarch Ivanishvili is going to implement all of the reforms necessary for us to join the EU.”

On June 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the protesters in Georgia:

I want you all to hear me today. We’re free people and free countries, and that will never change. [...] We’ll never give up, because the Donbas and Crimea are our land, just as Abkhazia and South Ossetia are yours. If anyone wants to forget that, if anyone wants to erase that from the record, we’ll be sure to remind them. We stand with you. [...] Yesterday, Ukraine received candidate status for EU membership. You’re on that path. Come — we’ll help you! Ukraine and Georgia together, forever! Glory to Georgia, glory to Ukraine!

The following day, United National Movement chairman ​​Nika Melia announced the formation of a temporary “national unity government,” which he said will not include current politicians or civil activists. The protesters’ vision is for the new government to consist of people considered experts in their respective fields, and its main goal will be to fulfill the EU’s membership demands if the current government resigns.

Representatives from the country’s ruling party have not responded to the protesters’ demands.

Story by Gleb Golod, reporting from Tbilisi.

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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