They come with whistles, signs and burning brooms. They stage hunger strikes or create rap videos and root for “the system” to collapse.
Georgia watchers can recall that it was a student movement – Kmara! – which helped vault President Mikheil Saakashvili to power back in 2003. Now a new youth movement is taking shape in Georgia. As political animosity builds ahead of Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary vote, this newly vocal student movement is gaining public accolades for supposedly doing something that doesn’t often happen in this South Caucasus country – organizing around issues, rather than political personalities.
Roughly nine in number, the youth groups that form the backbone of the movement rose to national fame after they mobilized mass anti-government demonstrations on September 18 in the capital, Tbilisi. The catalyst for the protests was the release of video footage portraying violent beatings and the rape of detainees in a Georgian prison.
A largely informal and uncoordinated collection of student activists from Tbilisi universities, the groups include everyone from anarchists to peace promoters to student-government leaders. While many have political ideas, most claim they are not aligned with any political party.
Analysts caution, however, that, on the eve of such a bitterly contested election, the student activists could turn into a political tool.
Political scientist Gia Nodia, a former education minister under Saakashvili, argues that, in the current loaded atmosphere, the student movement is an obvious target for the opposition; in particular, for the opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
“Georgian Dream is trying to use them, move them in a certain direction,” Nodia alleged. “But I think the students, at least so far, want to distance themselves from any political party.”
Georgian Dream representatives could not be reached for response.
The youth coalition’s blue t-shirts featured prominently in the marches during the first days after the release of the videos, but participants told EurasiaNet.org that protesters have since been asked to cover up any political attire or badge in a bid to prevent “political manipulation.”
“We hope [that we represent some change]; … we hope that we will become an issue-based protest,” said 22 year-old Khatia Nadaria, a member of one of the more left-leaning groups, Laboratoria-1918. (The group’s name refers to its search for “something new” and to the year of Tbilisi State University’s foundation, as well as the year the first, short-lived Georgian republic gained independence).
But the groups appear to be struggling to find a balance between politically aligned students and nominally apolitical groups.
Many have refused to work with Tbilisi State University’s student government, claiming it is too close to President Saakashvili’s United National Movement. At the same time, they accept students who are aligned with the Georgian Dream’s youth group.
Giorgi Meladze, a founding member of Kmara! (Enough!), maintains that, regardless how the groups describe themselves, their current street protests are politically motivated. “I think the biggest mobilizer right now is … politics,” said Meladze, now executive director of the Liberty Institute, a Tbilisi think-tank.
“The prisoners were a political issue now for six or seven years,” he said. “And … there were plenty, plenty of cases that should have potentially mobilized students … but what happened now is it is the election time.”
Nodia echoed that assessment, pointing out that, while the students “are not forming any particular political party … they are demanding the resignation of the government.”
The demand is specific, in particular, to Laboratoria-1918, which argues that “people don’t participate in the decision-making process.”
“[T]he main issues for us [are] solidarity, social security, and [a] government [that] should … do what we want,” said Nadaria.
The government has demonstrated that it can be responsive to student concerns: two days after student protests began demanding the resignation of Georgia’s powerful interior minister, Bacho Akhalaia, he was out of office.
Success does pose risks for student protesters. Members of various groups were arrested for supposedly “administrative offenses” amid a general round-up of activists that took place earlier this week.
Oto Kobakhidze, a 20 year-old junior at Tbilisi State University and one of the founders of the Orange Club, a group that promotes civic activism, said the current “situation” made his organization decide to stop protesting until after the election.
In general, “[students] are afraid to be involved in politics,” he said.
Nodia predicted that philosophical divisions within the youth movement could indicate a degree of “immaturity” that will cause it to fade once Georgia’s wave of election-related emotion subsides. He expressed hope, though, that the groups “continue to play a role” after the post-election situation “stabilizes.”
On behalf of his own group, Kobakhidze insists that this round of demonstrations is just the beginning.
“I believe that the situation will change, perhaps not radically, but the situation will gradually change,” he said. “And students will start to defend their interests, to demand what they deserve.”
--- This story was amended on October 11, 2012 to correct an editing mistake that identified the Orange Club as the Grey Club.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.