A street protest in central Tbilisi touched off a sequence of events that resulted in a furious debate in Georgia's parliament -- punctuated by a fist-fight among MPs over the governing methods of President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration.
A June 30 court Tbilisi court decision -- in which Aleko Davitashvili, president of the Georgian Wrestling Federation, his brother, Davit, along with Georgian judo champion Giorgi Revazishvili, were sentenced to three months of pre-trial detention on blackmailing charges sparked the unrest in the capital. The trio was arrested on June 28 for allegedly blackmailing Greek businessman Vili Iordanov for $8,000. The accused have denied all charges.
Tension escalated soon after the court announced the sentence. Television cameras in the courtroom relayed chaotic images of what appeared to be a brawl between supporters of the accused and court officials. Upon leaving the court, several dozen wrestlers and other supporters went on to hold a rally on nearby Rustaveli Avenue, effectively blocking Tbilisi's main thoroughfare. When attempts by regular police to disperse the crowd failed, riot police were called to the scene. As on-lookers cried "Shame on you," dozens of demonstrators were arrested amid a string of violent scuffles.
Opposition members, many of whom rushed to the scene after the protest's break-up, quickly condemned the crackdown and the use of riot police, the first such occasion in Tbilisi since the 2003 Rose Revolution. In an interview with EurasiaNet at the scene of the protest, Republican Party MP Levan Berdzenishvili termed the police action "a violation of human rights." At a July 1 news conference, the New Rights, Conservative and Republican Party called for the resignation of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili for "an excessive use of force by the police" and pledged to launch a public movement against "the authorities' violence."
The calls for Merabishvili's resignation come on the heels of outspoken opposition criticism of a law that provides for Tbilisi's mayor to be chosen by the National Movement Party-controlled city council, rather than by direct election. The New Rights, Conservative, Republican and Labor Parties have condemned the law for contributing to a one-party "dictatorship," and have pledged to boycott local elections scheduled for autumn 2006.
One Olympic gold medalist, who supports the Wrestling Federation detainees, however, has already called on the opposition to avoid adding the Rustaveli Avenue demonstration to its list of complaints against the government. "I know we behaved badly. The president of Georgia is doing more for the development of Georgian sport than anybody before him, and he most of all doesn't deserve this," the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported weightlifter Giorgi Asanidze as saying at a July 1 press conference. "We don't need the interference of political parties. In sports, we'll take care of things. Let all the parties leave us alone."
A July 1 debate in parliament about the protest, however, suggests that calls for restraint may fall on deaf ears. In footage broadcast by Georgian television, a brief, freewheeling fist-fight broke out between members of both the governing National Movement Party and opposition parties. The trouble apparently began after an irate Givi Targamadze, a majoritarian MP, took issue with a call from Conservative Party leader Koba Davitashvili for Merabishvili's resignation. Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze, who has praised parliamentarians in the past for refraining from such scuffles, was not present for the debate, instead attending the annual session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly in Washington, DC.
Speaking with reporters on July 1, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli defended the riot police's response, stating that "the police acted within the framework of the law." He also thanked Merabishvili for taking "appropriate measures to restore public order." A Georgian-language statement on the interior ministry's web site states that a criminal case has been opened into the disorders.
Not all observers, however, have reacted negatively to the government's response to the protests. "The government was absolutely right to use force against those resisting arrest. You cannot create mass protest on the main street because you don't like the verdict," commented Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. While calling for the government to investigate "individual cases of excessive force," Rondeli criticized opposition members for taking up the protestors' cause. "[S]ome so-called politicians will use every moment to appear on TV."