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Opposition rallies on Independence Day

By Mikheil Svanidze
Thursday, May 22
Opposition supporters marched through central Tbilisi yesterday to demand repeat elections, promising to return to prevent the next parliament from convening.

The protest was mostly peaceful but charged with aggression. Opposition leaders, who have decried last week’s parliamentary election as rigged, said beforehand they would march toward yesterday’s military parade if their supporters demanded it.

People began gathering in front of the Sports Palace in Tbilisi as early as 10 a.m., a short distance from central Rustaveli Avenue where the short, “symbolic” Independence Day military parade was planned at 11 a.m.

Opposition leaders from the United Opposition and Labor Party signed a joint memorandum pledging to boycott the new parliament. The third opposition party to win seats through the proportional party list vote, the Christian Democrats, did not commit to a boycott.

The thousands-strong crowd then marched toward parliament, where President Mikheil Saakashvili and the visiting president of Poland were giving short speeches.

At the start of Rustaveli Avenue, three city buses and a squad of riot police blocked the way. As the demonstrators drew near with a handful of aggressive men leading the way, the riot police swiftly piled into the buses and sped off.

By the time the crowd entered Rustaveli Avenue, they found only a single artillery piece left over from the 40-minute military parade.

In a briefing with the Polish president, Saakashvili offered dialogue between all the parties, irrespective of their interests and their weight in the next parliament.

“In the end, everything is decided by the people and by the majority. But this doesn’t mean the majority should not respect minority—and, on the other hand, the minority should respect the will of the majority. Dialogue is the only option.”

United Opposition leaders said talking was not an option.

“We have nothing to discuss with the president who rigged the elections and stripped the Georgian people of the right to vote for the government they want,” opposition figure Zviad Dzidziguri told reporters.

Opposition members delivered speeches decrying the alleged rigging of last week’s elections to a crowd which topped out at about 10 000 people, some with umbrellas to ward off the sun, and a few with surgical masks, apparently anticipating the use of tear gas to clear demonstrators.

The United Opposition spoke from the same podium Saakashvili used for his speech.

“They didn’t even take their podium [with them],” United Opposition member Gia Tortladze told the crowd. “After we throw away this government, we will take this tribune into some museum or something.”

Other speakers accused Saakashvili of cowardice. “They knew we were marching here and ran away like cowardly rabbits,” New Rights leader Davit Gamkrelidze said.

At around 2 p.m. a group of opposition MPs tried to enter parliament but were turned away by riot police at the gate.

Minutes later, Gamkrelidze told the crowd to return the first day the new parliament convenes to stop MPs from entering the building.

Parliament must convene within 20 days of the elections: June 10, at the latest.

Opposition figures also called on their parliamentary candidates from across the country to come to Tbilisi with supporters that day.

“We will not let this parliament convene,” vowed Goga Khaindrava of the United Opposition.

Gamkrelidze also floated the notion of an alternative parliament.

“We, the truly elected officials, will form an alternative government, probably a ‘Chamber of Representatives.’ We will convene and make decisions about this country,” he said.

The opposition speakers also said they would wait for a 4 p.m. Central Election Commission (CEC) meeting, at which they suggested official election results would be announced, before planning further action.

However, CEC officials issued a statement denying results were scheduled to be announced. “There’s a regular meeting, we are discussing the filed complaints,” a CEC spokesman said.

The CEC is obligated to release final results by June 8 at the latest.