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The opposition will greet Biden with “welcome rally”

By Temuri Kiguradze
Tuesday, July 21
Salome Zourabichvili, leader of The Way of Georgia and one of the leaders of the opposition coalition the 9 April Movement, has announced that after the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden to Tbilisi on July 22 the non-Parliamentary opposition will suspend the protest rallies which have been conducted in the Georgian capital for over three months. However before that the opposition plans to “greet” Vice President Biden with a massive rally on Freedom Square on the evening of July 22.

Zourabichvili, who served as Foreign Affairs Minister before joining the opposition, kindly agreed to talk to The Messenger about the details of the upcoming events on July 20.

“The April 9 Movement plans to meet and greet Vice President Biden and therefore we are calling on people to come to a large rally in Freedom Square. Many pro-Government media outlets are trying to portray this rally as a protest which it is not; we have nothing to protest against when it comes to America and its Vice President,” stated Zourabichvili. She said the main purpose of the rally will be to express the gratitude of the Georgian people for “the constant support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by the US” and their hope for “even stronger support from America’s new administration for the building of democracy in Georgia.”

The opposition politician noted that “despite the possible allegations of the [Georgian] Government” the people coming to Freedom Square Rally will not just be those hurt by the reforms of the current authorities. “They will be those who were standing in front of Parliament at the Rose Revolution and the same people who were standing there during the visit of [US President] George W. Bush to Georgia.”

“We were very attentively listening to the statements of the new American administration and President Obama, especially during his visit to Moscow. We appreciate his [Obama’s] reiteration of America’s support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as that is very important in this difficult period for Georgia. But from his speeches we can also hear his statements about the will of people and the Government needing to be based on it and his support for free elections, and that is what we want. We want Georgia to change, we want to convey to Vice President Biden that the Georgian people feel a little bit disappointed that after a while the previous American administration give less support for [Georgian] democratic institutions and more for a particular group of people [in Georgian government]. We hope that the new administration will return to supporting those institutions rather than supporting the regime.” Salome Zourabichvili added that White House officials may have been led to believe that “only one” group of people, those currently holding the top positions in the Government, represent pro-reform and Western-oriented movements in Georgia, and she considers that Obama’s administration has “already recognised” that taking this kind of attitude was one of the “errors of the previous [Bush] policy.” “We and the people gathering on Freedom Square will show that there are more reform-oriented groups in society than the Government and underline the fact that the authorities are reform-oriented and pro-democratic only in words, their deeds being completely different.”

Salome Zourabichvili confirmed that the mass protest rallies on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi will finish just after Biden’s visit to Georgia. The opposition parties plan to remove the improvised cells, which they say were used to show that Georgia has become a police state, from the streets of the city. “After one hundred days of the peaceful protests we think that this stage should end. From September we will implement a new strategy for achieving free elections, which I think is the only way to overcome the crisis and restart the political and economic machine in Georgia,” stated Salome Zourabichvili. She considers that the rallies have already played their role in the political process. “The peaceful protests have shown that society exists in Georgia and it wants just what it wanted during the protest action in 2003 [Rose Revolution], democracy, a free judiciary, a strong Parliament – nothing has changed.” According to Zourabichvili the protest rallies that began on April 9 showed the fragility of the Georgian state and that’s why the opposition parties chose the method of peaceful demonstrations which are “the only means of achieving our goals.”

The fact that the street rallies are cooling down doesn’t mean that the opposition has given up its struggle, Zourabichvili said. “There is no betrayal” of the people sitting in the cells on Rustaveli Avenue she said. “Now we stand for the same objectives we did before. We demand free elections, and these can only happen after the dismissal of Saakashvili. We are simply changing the means of the struggle; nobody said that we would keep the cells on Rustaveli Avenue forever. Now those cells, in the middle of summer, can be in a way negative PR for the protest actions and we need to think of some new ways of protest and combine these with intensive action with our foreign partners, because a lot depends on them. Achieving all of this requires a new complex strategy that cannot be limited to the cells on Rustaveli Avenue. But of course those people [the participants of the current protest actions] should be considered and they should play their parts in the future strategy,” she said. Speaking about this “new strategy,” Salome Zourabichvili noted that now it is in the process of being worked out, but the “welcome” rally for Vice President Biden is part of that strategy and the protest rallies will be renewed in September. “It’s not because we like it, but in the existing situation this is the only way for the opposition to express its ideas,” she said.

The opposition doesn’t reject the idea of holding dialogue with the Government, Zourabichvili said, but she explained that this dialogue should be “real and serious” and not just “talks for the sake of PR, as have been preferred by the Georgian authorities.” She also commented on the proposition of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that he is ready to give Government positions to members of the non-Parliamentary opposition. When this statement was made Zourabichvili had announced that she was ready to accept the position of Deputy Interior Minister to gain the opposition “access to real power in the country,” however her offer was not accepted and she even didn’t receive an official refusal or explanation of this decision from the Government. She noted that this may confirm that Georgia is not now governed by Saakashvili alone but by “clans that have taken power around him.” She also expressed her hope that Vice President Biden may make Saakashvili change his mind and turn his refusal into an acceptance. “That would be a very interesting step towards building trust between sides which today don’t talk to each other [the Government and the non-Parliamentary opposition].

Continuing the topic of dialogue with the authorities, Zourabichvili said that a compromise proposal from the Government may be accepted if it leads to the serious improvement of democratic processes in the country. “We are not the radical opposition we are often portrayed as by the Government’s media, if this has been so we would have followed the same revolutionary path Saakashvili once did. We support the political processes of the country, but we have to see that these processes can be allowed to work with these authorities in charge, as they haven’t seen that in the two elections of 2008 – Presidential and Parliamentary, we were not totally duped,” she stated, adding that the latest changes in legislation and policy show that the Government is moving in the direction of taking “even more repressive” actions. However Zourabichvili conceded that the resignation of Saakashvili may not be the key to making the democratic processes work if he agreed to allow the opposition parties to participate in government. “Anything can be accepted if it has the trust of the population, if the people can see and trust that the President’s powers are effectively reduced so that Parliamentary elections can take place in a free environment, one not controlled by [Interior Minister] Merabishvili’s police and by the media totally in the hands [of the Government]. This situation can be accepted as a compromise by the population,” stated Zourabichvili, noting that this kind of the compromise will nevertheless require the reestablishment of trust between the population and the authorities which could be achieved only with the assistance of Western partners, including the USA, who may become “guarantors” of that trust.

Summing up three months of protests in Georgia, Zourabichvili noted that the rallies had served as a sort of “electoral campaign” at which the oppositional parties got the chance to present themselves directly to the population. Salome Zourabichvili noted that her party was successful in that campaign. “If we look back on what we have gained or lost; we can say that we didn’t deliver what we promised the population, the free elections that would help us overcome this crisis. However, from the very first days of the protest actions we stated that we had a long way to go and would be a battle of nerves needing patience and self-confidence. In fact in this battle of nerves, the authorities lost their nerve more often than the opposition. It has become clear inside and outside the country through the rallies that without using their usual instruments – propaganda and repression - the authorities aren’t able to effectively govern anymore, they are not able to protect the borders and the country’s interests.

“Despite the fact that these protests have not removed Saakashvili and forced new elections, they have been able to show that the emperor is naked, even if he has a new and very expensive palace,” concluded Salome Zourabichvili, referring to the new Presidential residence opened recently in Tbilisi.