In Georgia, a fight to the end
They camp around the clock in the company of friends and supporters in front of the old parliament on the main arterial road of Tbilisi, Rustaveli Avenue. They have one tent, several camp beds, flags – Georgian, European, American – as well as photos of their sons and others who were murdered by a regime they consider criminal, that of Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The current protest is limited in comparison to the events of early June this year, when in the centre of Tbilisi there appeared around 10,000 Georgians to support Zaza Saralidze, demanding a full explanation of the circumstances of his son’s death and punishment of the perpetrators after a court sentence failed to address these issues.
Giorgi Kvirikashvili addressed the angry crowd and tried to assure them that the government would do everything it could to remedy the situation. Post-Saakashvili opposition politicians tried to join the demonstration, which did nothing but offend the protesters. The protest died out after several days after the dismissal of the general prosecutor. The protest resumed on the September 11th. Nevertheless, it still seems that most Georgians are indifferent about the harm suffered by Saralidze and Machalikashvili. Most of them walk by the protesters without taking much notice. Occasionally someone stops, reads the demands written on the banners, takes photos with them, consoles, or supports them. Often those people are foreigners. The government quietly calculates that the two men will finally resign, seeing that resistance is senseless.
“I won’t give way. I will fight to the end for justice,” Zaza Saralidze tells us. “Our protest is apolitical. For me it is not important who rules the country – Georgian Dream or United National Movement. For me what matters is that the murderers of my son receive their prison sentences,” he adds.
Circumstances of David’s death
Saralidze’s son David was killed in a quarrel before school in the centre of Tbilisi, close to the capital’s concert hall. Several pupils were involved in the clash. The prosecutor’s office and the court were unable to find the perpetrators of the murder of the 16 year old boy. And he was not the only victim. Levan Dadunashvili, David’s friend, was also killed. In his case the perpetrators were arrested and sentenced. The police and courts’ problems might be due to that fact that two minor participants of the fight had been relatives (son and sister-in-law’s son) of a former, influential official of the prosecutor’s office, Mirza Subeliani, who wanted to protect them. Under the pressure of public opinion, the opposition and a parliamentary investigation commission which has been established to determine the circumstances of the tragic incident, Subeliani has been arrested on charges and not yet been sentenced. However, it seems that he may have made a very suspect deal with the government – for agreeing to become a scapegoat and receiving a light sentence, his relatives could stay unpunished. Tapes of interviews with Subeliani recorded at the prison where he currently stays were published by opposition TV station Rustavi 2 several days before the first round of presidential elections. They show him in possession of compromising material on the authorities, like illegal financing of the Georgian Dream or persuading former prime minister Vano Merabishvili (who is in prison for abuse of power) to testify against former president Mikheil Saakashvili. The prosecutor’s office does not want to deal with the case of Subeliani’s relatives, which Saralidze demands. Once again in Georgia we have a case of selective justice, where some people are untouchable and stand above the law.
“My son was an ordinary guy. He always stood up for weaker colleagues at school. This case was the same. He wanted to help a friend who was being harassed by a group of youngsters. That’s why he was murdered. The authorities are trying to present him as a hooligan. Ivanishvili is accusing me of being a puppet of the opposition. It’s not true,” Saralidze said.
Sadly, both Saralidze’s case and Machalikashvili’s case are politically exploited by the opposition in order to attack the government. Before the first round of presidential elections, which took place on October 28th, the protesters were joined by three candidates coming from the post-Saakashvili camp: Grigol Vashadze (United National Movement), Davit Bakradze (European Georgia) and Zurab Japaridze (New Political Center-Girchi).
Trouble in Pankisi
Saralidze’s case seems quite simple and unambiguous. More questions exist around the murder of Malkhaz Machalikashvili’s son, Temirlan. He lost his life as a result of anti-terrorist actions conducted by the Georgian secret services at the end of December last year in Pankisi gorge in north-eastern Georgia, an area inhabited by Georgian Chechens known as Kists. Georgian secret services were aiming for members of Akhmed Chatayev’s group, to which the 19 year old Temirlan Machalikashvili might have belonged. Chatayev and some of his group were annihilated in anti-terrorist actions conducted in a block of flats in Isani, a Tbilisi district, in November 2017. The group might have been associated with ISIS and recruiting local Kists for the war in Syria. During the detention of alleged terrorists in Pankisi, Temirlan was shot in the forehead while at home by anti-terrorist special forces. The authorities claim that during the action he reached for a grenade. After several days of hospitalisation he died.
“My only son was intentionally murdered, in his own bed, when he was sleeping. He didn’t resist and he was no terrorist. Operations in Pankisi and Isani were conducted to pull the wool over society’s eyes, to cover up the government’s financial scams which have been transferring billions of dollars to Syria and Iraq,” a highly distressed Malkhaz Machalikashvili said to us.
In contrast to Zaza Saralidze, Machalikashvili doesn’t hide his revulsion towards the Georgian Dream government. “Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Dreamers are a band of criminals, thieves and murders. I hope that Grigol Vashadze will win the presidential elections and thanks to this, the case of my son and Saralidze’s son murders will be settled,” adds Machalikashvili. Saralidze and Machalikashvili didn’t know each other before. They were united by personal tragedy. Currently neither of them works. They live off of their savings and from the support of their friends. In the past Saralidze worked in international transport and Machalikashvili conducted many businesses in Chechnya. He owned stores and traded cars. He spent most of his life in Russia, but he feels himself a citizen of Georgia.
“The current government has done nothing for society. It is dominated by uneducated people, who don’t know anything. Mikheil Saakashvili built the Georgian state, built roads, infrastructure, police, army, overcame criminality, corruption.”
Salome or Grigol, i.e. Bidzina or Misha
“Dreamers before the first round of presidential elections were bribing voters, especially employees of the public sector: policemen, soldiers, civil servants, teachers and doctors. They were coerced into voting for Samole Zurabishvili,” says Machalikashvili anxiously.
Two candidates passed to the second round of voting, which will take place on November 28th: Grigol Vashadze and Samole Zurabishvili, who won 37.7 per cent and 38.6 per cent of the votes respectively, and Zurabishvili looks unlikely to win the election. Contrary to the hopes of the ruling camp, its favoured candidate did not win in the first round. Georgians are tired of Dreamers. They have grievances about unfulfilled election promises, especially those of a social nature and connected with the creation of new employment opportunities. The majority of them surely will stay at home. In the first round the turnout was only 46.7 per cent. Those who went to the ballot boxes would rather vote against the authorities than for Vashadze. The rulers will certainly use their administrative resources to help Zurabishvili, formally an independent contender. The victory of the opposition candidate to president will not have a formal influence on the government. They have a constitutional majority in the parliament and a new president will have similar competences to the president of Germany – it is a purely representative position. However, Vashadze’s victory could initiate a psychological avalanche, which would end in the Georgian Dream losing parliamentary elections in 2020. Vashadze declares that if he wins, he will demand immediate early elections. Moreover, as president Vashadze could pardon Mikheil Saakashvili, who could then come back to Georgia (he has been outside the country already for five years) and try once again to gain power. This is what Dreamers truly fear.
“Ivanishvili has for many years been groomed by the Kremlin for power seizure in Georgia. He is Russia’s puppet. He pretends to be pro-western. The co-operation with NATO and EU is a smokescreen. The money that Ivanishvili allocated for different infrastructural projects during Saakashvili’s rule has come back to him with a fourfold surplus,s” emphasises Malkhaz Machalikashvili.
The atmosphere around the protest on Rustaveli Avenue became tense. Several hundred people including opposition politicians and representatives of NGOs tried to support Saralidze and Machalikashvili. They wanted to pitch additional tents and spend the night with protesters. The police intervened. There were scuffles. Saralidze was injured and was sent to hospital. It wasn’t the first time –several weeks ago, he got caught up in a fight with a policeman. Saralidze was temporarily arrested. He was charged with active assault on an officer, for which he could be sentenced with four to seven years in prison. After several days Saralidze was released and came back to Rustaveli Avenue.
On the Saturday of the intensifying protests, law enforcement announced its objection to putting new tents, saying that in the coming days the installation of Christmas decorations will start in the centre of the capital, including the installation of a huge Christmas tree in front of parliament on December 7th. Saralidze received an official document with information that before then he has to leave the territory in front of the parliament building. It is highly likely that this is a pretext for removing the demonstrators from the city centre. The signatures are already collected for a petition to the mayor not to install the Christmas tree. The authorities nevertheless still fear the somewhat faded protest, which they fear could explode with renewed energy. Such a turn of events would be dangerous in the face of the coming second round of presidential elections.
The authorities will not be able to sweep this case under the rug. For the ruling party it is a deadlock. Explaining the circumstances of David and Temirlan’s death would lead inevitably to the disclosing of compromising information on Georgian Dream. But ignoring the protesters, or an attempt at forced removal, could lead the tension to escalate further. Yet the Saralidze and Machalikashvili cases won’t be clarified with Georgian Dream in power. The two fathers of murdered sons will have to wait for justice.
Wojciech Wojtasiewicz is a PhD student at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. He is a member of the Association “Bridge to Georgia” and a regular contributor to the Polish Nowa Europa Wschodnia.