Georgian leader’s foes dismiss reported mutiny as a stunt put up by the authorities to distract public from protests.
By Tamar Kadagidze in Tbilisi (CRS No. 492, 8-May-09)
Opposition leaders in Georgia have again demanded the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili, following days of turbulence marked by clashes with police and an alleged mutiny.
The demand was lodged on May 7, just short a month since the opposition launched street protests in Tbilisi.
“We repeat once again that we see a peaceful, constitutional replacement of Saakashvili and his regime, to be carried out through early presidential and parliamentary elections, as the only real way to end the political crisis,” said the leaders in a joint statement, read out to a crowd of protesters outside the parliament building.
“To prevent an escalation of violence and to ensure that political processes develop peacefully… we confirm, once again, our readiness to meet Saakashvili to discuss how we can lead the country out of the current political crisis.”
The opposition underlined that while committed to a peaceful resolution of the crisis, they will not accept any trade-offs short of the president himself agreeing to quit.
“The dialogue can only be held with President Saakashvili,” said his former foreign minister, Salome Zurabishvili, who now heads the opposition Path of Georgia party. “We are ready to meet with him to tell him that the country can be saved only if he leaves.”
Irakli Melashvili, one of the leaders of the opposition National Forum, said they would give Saakashvili only two or three days to sit down with them at the negotiation table.
“If he refuses to meet us, we’ll start blocking roads,” said Melashvili, warning that that would mean starting “a process that will cost him dear”.
The opposition’s joint statement on May 7 followed several turbulent days in Georgia.
The night before, clashes erupted between opposition protesters and law-enforcers, after the former marched on Tbilisi’s central police station, demanding the release of three activists.
The activists, one of whom was a 15-year-old, were detained on charges of having assaulted a journalist from the public broadcasting station.
But when the thousands-strong crowd of protesters had reached the police headquarters, they found hundreds of police armed with truncheons and riot squads on the other side of the fence that surrounded the building.
One of the opposition leaders, the well-known singer, Gia Gachechiladze, then climbed over the fence into the courtyard and into the hands of the police. Several young people also tried, but the police forced them back down.
When they saw Gachechiladze being clubbed by police truncheons, his supporters attempted to attack the police on the other side of the railings with their flagpoles. The police responded by firing rubber bullets.
The clash left several opposition leaders and protesters injured, as well as three journalists.
Television footage of the incident showed the two sides hurling objects at each other, as well as blood seeping from the wounded heads of some opposition leaders.
At an emergency press conference, the deputy interior minister, Eka Zguladze, insisted the police had not done anything untoward. They had not “broken up the demonstration” near the police headquarters, she argued.
“The police never went beyond the fence and they attacked no one; there was an attack on the police,” she maintained, adding that no arrests had been made.
The three activists whose detention led to the clashes were then released after the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, appeared on television to call on the authorities to set them free.
Fourteen opposition parties have been holding street protests in Tbilisi ever since April 9.
They have set up improvised prison cells outside the parliament building, as well as near some other government facilities, creating major traffic jams in central districts of the city. Night and day, opposition activists have stayed in the cells, which the opposition says symbolise what Saakashvili’s rule had turned Georgia into.
The opposition had then planned to block the main highways connecting Tbilisi with the rest of Georgia on May 6.
But those plans were stymied when, on May 5, the authorities suddenly declared that they had thwarted a planned military coup.
Defence Minister David Sikharulidze accused arch-foe Russia of being behind a mutiny by a tank battalion at a military base in Mukhrovani, about 30 kilometres away from the capital.
“The plan seems to have been backed by Russia, aimed at disrupting the NATO military exercises and, possibly, carrying out a full-scale military coup in Georgia,” an interior ministry spokesman, Shota Utiashvili, said at an emergency press briefing on May 5.
The Kremlin had repeatedly voiced opposition to the prospect of NATO holding exercises in Georgia, urging their cancellation. The alliance has pressed on with the manoeuvres, however, which began on May 6 and will last until June 1.
Utiashvili added that several high-ranking officers had been arrested in connection with the incident.
A video, allegedly shot with a hidden camera, was then shown at the briefing.
This showed former special forces commander Gia Gvaladze explaining to a pair of men that the Kremlin would back the coup. “The Russian will come to help us – 5,000 people in all,” he said.
Russia denied any involvement in the mutiny. “Each new accusation [levelled by Georgia] tends to be more ridiculous than the previous one,” responded the Russian foreign ministry in a statement.
“They have said a lot [before]. But never before has anyone alleged that Russia might be trying to overthrow the Georgian government with the help of the Georgian military forces.”
The Georgian opposition said it did not believe the authorities’ talk of a foiled coup, either. They made it clear they saw it as a decoy, aimed at throwing their protests off course.
“This is just another phenomenon from the virtual world in which we live,” said Zurabishvili, referring to the alleged mutiny.
This article was originally published on www.iwpr.net