Molly Corso in Tbilisi
May 28, 2012
Both Georgia's ruling party and the opposition had reasons to celebrate the weekend of May 26-27.
Tens of thousands blocked roads in Tbilisi as a sign of solidarity with opposition financier Bidzina Ivanishvili on Sunday, May 27 during an hour long peaceful rally in the centre of the capital, the largest anti-government event since 2009. Peppered with Ivanishvili's "Georgian Dream" blue flags, the rally was grandiose but understated – notable more for the complete absence of conflict, or promises to occupy the capital until the government caved, than for the content of the speeches.
In his first major public appearance, Ivanishvili rallied supporters to "participate" in his "clear plans" to win the parliamentary elections later this year. But it was clearly the sign of strength – the number of people, the volume of protest – that Georgia's would-be saviour was seeking. Ivanishvili had made the rounds on pro-opposition television stations in the days leading up to the protest, promising supporters that a show of force would make winning elections easier.
During his 20-minute speech he hit the same note, telling the crowd the movement to unseat the ruling party's majority in parliament would grow into a "fist" of unity in time for the autumn elections, before turning the stage over to his son Bera, a teenage rapper with a strong following in Georgia. "By fall, [all of] Georgia will be united like a fist," Ivanishvili said. "We have a clear plan how to solve all these problems… We are starting full-fledged campaign and we are already working intensively both within the country and abroad."
The protest took place a day after President Mikheil Saakashvili opened the country's new parliament in Kutaisi, a city 230 kilometres from the capital - a project that reportedly cost $82.5m and has added to the opposition's ire.
The new parliament – and the debut of Kutaisi as the country's political capital – has been derided as Saakashvili's attempt to usurp opposition efforts to influence politics by paralyzing Tbilisi with protests. In 2009, three months of protests closed access to the parliament building and some government offices, promoting the ruling party's suggestion to relocate the legislative body.
The new building, designed by CMD Ingenieros, was only partially completed for the May 26 opening. Saakashvili and Parliamentary Speaker Davit Bakradze toured the construction site; the president helped workers secure one of the building's trademark glass panels before greeting MPs in the main chamber.
Reminiscent of a space-age bunker
, the building is entirely covered in black glass panels, with a long white strip following its contour and leading to a large open park. Saakashvili alluded to the opposition and the planned protests, but did not focus on them during his 30-minute speech. Instead, the president underscored efforts to provide equality and unity for a country historically troubled by conflict along regional, ethnic and social lines. "Like the new parliament building, new Georgia is still unfinished construction," he said. "Now it is time for a new political Prometheism to ensure that political power never remains in the hands of a small group of one and the same people – the group, which publicly announces that non-rich people have nothing to do in politics."
Following constitutional reforms, the elections this time around will allow whoever holds a majority in the new parliament to vote in the new, powerful prime minister in 2013.
Saakashvili has been under increased international pressure to ensure the parliament elections are fair and transparent. Earlier this year, there were allegations that the ruling party was using the country's Chamber of Control and its new political finance office to threaten opposition activists. Further allegations that an unofficial "militia" with government ties had been formed in western Georgia added to concerns that the ruling party was prepared to use force against the opposition. Saakashvili and his team have denied the allegations. During his speech in Kutaisi, the president underscored efforts to make the parliament elections the "fairest and freest."
Ivanishvili, however, took a stronger line, telling supporters that the election is a matter of "life and death" for the country. "The parliamentary election this fall is a matter of life and death for our country," he said, according to Civil.ge. "Political struggle to change the existing regime is not just my desire, but it is my obligation; this is the obligation of every Georgian citizen; this is a matter of dignity."