President’s Address Marred by Scuffles

Melee outside the planned venue for President Saakashvili’s address to the nation on Friday in which several UNM lawmakers were assaulted has further deepened tensions between political rivals in Georgia.

After PM Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream parliamentary majority announced on February 7 that President Saakashvili’s annual state of the nation address in the Parliament, which was planned for February 8, would only be held after resolving a row over proposed constitutional changes on presidential powers, the President decided to make his annual speech from the National Library.

Few hundred angry protesters started gathering outside the National Library more than five hours before the President’s scheduled speech, which was planned for 6pm on February 8.

Among the protesters were some of those former inmates who were released from jails in January after the Parliament recognized them as political prisoners. Some of them were saying that they gathered “to force Saakashvili to pass through corridor of shame” before entering inside the library.

Some protesters carried brooms in reference to prison abuse videos, which emerged ahead of the October elections and which showed an inmate sexually assaulted by prison guards with a broom.

Tensions were mounting as scheduled time of the president’s address was approaching; one group of protesters was actually jamming the main entrance of the National Library. One group of protesters, among them Nana Kakabadze, head of the non-governmental organization Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights, was demanding from the officials of the president’s administration to allow her and several others to attend the President’s address to ask him questions.

Major part of protesters was gathered on the left side from the main entrance of the National Library, which is surrounded by narrow streets in downtown Tbilisi close to the Freedom Square.

Major incident erupted when Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava and a group of lawmakers from President Saakashvili’s UNM party arrived on the scene. Ugulava, shouting at the angry crowd “stage the show”, tried to make his way towards the library, but was prevented by protesters who confronted him; several UNM MPs were attacked, including MP Sergo Ratiani; another lawmaker Chiora Taktakishvili suffered a bloody nose after being punched by one of the protesters.

Although the police were present, they failed to contain the crowd and prevent the incident; some reports indicate that the police were reluctant to intervene.

Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who is a close ally of PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, arrived on the scene after the incident; protesters greeted him with applause. Garibashvili urged them to maintain calm and to disperse. After it emerged that the President was no longer planning to arrive at the National Library for the speech, protesters started to disperse; one part of protesters moved towards the presidential palace from where Saakashvili was planning to address the nation.

Later on Friday Garibashvili said in a televised statement that the police took necessary security measures ahead of the planned address by the President and accused Tbilisi mayor and UNM lawmakers of provoking protesters. He said that the Interior Ministry offered the President and his supporters to use alternative routes to enter the library in order to prevent their direct contact with the protesters. Instead, Garibashvili said, Ugulava and UNM lawmakers decided to enter into the building from the direction where protesters were mobilized.

“They acted as the group of professional instigators,” said Garibashvili, who also condemned the violence by the protesters and vowed that perpetrators would be punished. But he also added: “Initiators of the provocation will also be brought to justice.”

UNM said that protest at the National Library was orchestrated by the Georgian Dream and PM Ivanishvili.

Developments outside the National Library delayed Saakashvili’s address, which was made from the presidential palace, by more than three hours.

He spoke in presence of foreign diplomats, UNM lawmakers, journalists and other invited guests.

“Diplomatic corps are present here; I want to apologize for a delay and apologize for incorrect actions that took place against them; I want to apologize on behalf of the Georgian state, because as the head of this state I share responsibility for action of the police – or rather inaction of the police in this case,” Saakashvili said

Commenting on Georgian Dream-proposed constitutional changes envisaging limiting presidential powers in respect of sacking the government and appointing the new one, Saakashvili said that he was not intending to use this right. He said such a move would be “devastating” first of all for him and his UNM party. During the question and answer session after the speech, Saakashvili was asked if he would sack the government; he responded that he saw no need for that “if something really miracle does not happen”; sacking the government, he said, would be “political miscalculation.”

In his speech Saakashvili called for “cooperation and cohabitation”; he said that the unity should be achieved on the issues like pro-Western foreign policy course; democracy; supremacy of the constitution.

Meanwhile, outside the presidential palace a group of protesters was rallying.

After leaving the presidential palace, U.S. ambassador Richard Norland, who was among the foreign diplomats who attended the President’s address, spoke with one of the protesters, telling him that violence that took place outside the National Library, involving attacks on lawmakers was “a terrible thing”.

“Tonight by the library there was violence; parliamentarians were hit and this was a terrible thing; this is not a democratic principle,” the U.S. ambassador told the protester. “I know that you are angry about certain things, but my message to you is you must let your government work with the President on these issues. I believe that the President sent a signal tonight that he wants to work with the government to address the problems and I think it’s important that everybody here give the government and the President a chance to do that, because otherwise there is a risk of more violence and I do not think that anybody in Georgia wants that again.””

Co-rapporteurs from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on honouring Georgia’s obligations, Michael Aastrup Jensen and Boriss Cilevičs released a written statement condemning violence National Library.
“We call on all concerned to maintain calm and to refrain from any action that could further increase tension. We urge the authorities to fully investigate this outbreak of violence and to prosecute any perpetrators in full compliance with international standards,” the statement reads.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter: “Worrying that majority blocks President from delivering traditional address to Parliament of Georgia. Mutual respect is key to democracy.”

When asked after his speech if he would still address the Parliament if the Georgian Dream lawmakers agree, President Saakashvili responded: “Yes of course.”

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