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7 Nov, 2009 23:31

Georgian opposition marks anniversary of dispersed protests

Around two thousand Georgian opposition protesters took to the streets of the capital Tbilisi on Saturday to commemorate the second anniversary of a crackdown on mass demonstrations that injured hundreds.

Two years ago, riot police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who were calling for President Saakashvili to resign, bringing about early presidential elections.

The main organizers – opposition and human rights activists – were demanding free and fair elections, freedom of the press and a halt to political repression.

”The problems that were pressing on November 7, 2007 continue nowadays. It is actually getting worse,” said Nana Kakabadze of the NGO “Former Prisoners for Human Rights.”

”We want to tell the authorities that we have not come to divide power between us – we are representatives of civil society who are demanding protection of our dignity and rights. We will fight until we win.”

Another opposition activist, Georgy Khaindrava, said that the process of change is inevitable. “It will finish with the departure of Saakashvili, to be sure,” he added.

“Saakashvili is not our President,” was among the messages from hundreds gathered on the streets of Tbilisi to march from the Public TV Centre to Parliament.

A short walk of a little over four miles was, nevertheless, long enough to make a statement. Out with the current government – a government which is not a democracy, but an autocracy, according to the opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze.

“Saakashvili violated all promises he made in 2003, following the Rose Revolution. Instead of building a democracy he created an autocratic regime, violating all democratic principles and values,” Burdzhanadze says.

With government corruption and poverty in Georgia’s far-flung regions – the opposition has many reasons to continue their fight, and shows no sign of backing down.

The protest united young and old. People from all walks of life came together to show they cannot be silenced by Saakashvili.

Further, they say they are not frightened to head back to the streets to speak out against President Saakashvili’s regime once again.

“Our message is this: fight until victory. This is the beginning of a new wave of protests. And we will not quit until Saakshvili quits,” opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze says.

A “Protect Life” member, Georgiy Gurkelidze, is of the same opinion:

“We haven’t yet succeeded in our demands for Saakashvili’s resignation, but we will continue to press on. They thought they could scare us – but we’re not afraid of anything, even death.”

The Parliament building may have been the finish line, but their race is still far from over. They see Saakashvili as their ultimate enemy, a criminal with blood on his hands.

They are demanding his resignation and vow to continue to fight until Georgia gets a new, better government – and the leaders they say they deserve.

Beginnings of a police state

The rally was held on the second anniversary of the anti-government protests of 2007. Those demonstrations were brought to a violent end when police used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, and noise machines to drive the protesters off the streets of Tbilisi.

For many, that day signified the beginnings of a police state in Georgia.

“I think it’s one of the most tragic days in Georgia’s history. Georgia has seen many invasions over the centuries, but never before had a Georgian lifted a hand against his compatriots. That’s why I think everyone who feels his rights are being oppressed will go out on the streets again on November 7. And it seems many of those who took to the streets two years ago will repeat their actions,” said Georgy Khaindrava.

On the first days of November 2007, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in front of the Parliament in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to demand President Saakashvili’s resignation.

Vast numbers poured into the heart of the city after former Interior Minister Irakly Okruashvili accused his former ally of physically removing his political opponents. The crowds stayed put for five days, and then, on the morning of November 7, all hell broke loose.

“A rubber bullet hit me in the head. The force was so great that I flew forward several feet and fell down. When I looked up, I saw several policemen kicking a woman. Three other men and I rushed to help her,” recalls Djambul Gamtselidze, a member of the “Protect Life” movement.

It made no difference to riot police who was in their path – protesters, journalists, or innocent bystanders. They used water cannon, rubber bullets and tear gas to drive the protesters out of the city centre.

More than 500 people were taken to hospital once the protests had been dispersed.

A special task force raided the studios of Imedi TV channel, which is known for its anti-Saakashvili rhetoric.

As police destroyed technical equipment and forced employees and journalists out of the building, the broadcast had to be cut off, literally mid-sentence.