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Police officers in front of the old Parliament building, May 14, 2018. Photo: Screengrab from TV Pirveli

Protesters Clear Rustaveli Avenue after Talks with Interior Minister

Several hundred protesters, who rallied against police raids on Tbilisi’s top music clubs, have cleared the Rustaveli avenue after nearly six hour-long standoff with a group of hardline nationalists and conservatives.

The rally, convened in front of the Parliament building at 3 pm yesterday, proceeded peacefully in the initial hours, but the situation escalated after counter-rally participants managed to get closer to the demonstration.

The group, consisting of several ultranationalist and conservative groups, chanted violent slogans against what they see as “drug use promotion,” “moral decadence,” and “the anti-Georgian” character of their opponents.

The counter-rally participants were stopped by police officers just fifty meters away from the Parliament building, in front of the National Youth Palace. Additional reinforcements, including water cannons and riot police, joined the police cordons later, sealing off the nearby streets with heavy police presence.

The situation remained tense for most of the evening, with periodic escalations as the counter-rally participants attempted to unsuccessfully break through the police cordon to reach the Parliament building.

The protesters against the police raids, agreed to cease the demonstration shortly after midnight as their leaders agreed with Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia that they would scrutinize the May 12 operation together and resume work on drug policy reform.

Initially, the protesters refused to accept the terms, but the group agreed on the deal after Minister Gakharia addressed the group personally and apologized for the police’s handling of Friday’s operation.

The Interior Minister also offered to the protesters to “move to a working mode,” and invited their representatives to a meeting the following day to “discuss every single minute of Friday’s police operation.”

Beka Tsikarishvili of the White Noise movement, one of the organizers of the rally, announced shortly afterwards that they would call off the demonstration and take a timeout until May 19 “to see how the working process unfolds.”

They protesters were then escorted out of the area in municipal buses mobilized specifically for this purpose by the authorities.

The counter-rally participants stayed in the area until their opponents would leave the place, and were allowed by the police to move in front of the Parliament building around an hour later.

Some of their leaders told reporters that a large-scale rally would be held on Monday evening, pledging to continue demonstrations through May 17 – the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO). May 17 is a symbolic date for both the ultra-nationalist groups and their opponents. In 2013, these groups, backed by radical Orthodox clergy, have violently assaulted the attempted IDAHO rally.

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