The riot police deployed water cannons twice at the premises of the Central Election Commission in Tbilisi on the night of 8-9 November against hundreds of opposition supporters who marched in protest against what they see as flawed elections. The rally, where opposition leaders pledged to reject the October 31 general election as fraudulent, first gathered at the parliament building in downtown Tbilisi. Some of the protesters then moved to CEC, demanding the resignation of CEC chairman Tamar Zhvania, who they hold responsible for flawed administration of vote-count, and repeat elections.
Tensions mounted at 21:45 when the police first deployed water cannons apparently without prior warning against a small group of protesters who were just arriving at the building. The larger part of the crowd was still on its way to CEC from the Parliament.
The Interior Ministry said the use of water cannons was justified, as to dissuade the protesters from “storming” the CEC building. The footage shows a small group of protesters shaking the metal fence at the perimeter of CEC, although a large group of policemen in full riot gear and shields are also seen to be in position on the other side of the fence.
The situation defused somewhat as more protesters, including some opposition leaders, have arrived, some half-an-hour after the initial use of water cannons. But tensions mounted again at 01:05 of November 9, when following minor skirmishes between riot police and a group of protesters, the police used water cannons again, for about 10 minutes, albeit issuing a prior warning this time.
Georgian Dream campaign chief, Irakli Kobakhidze, MP of the outgoing parliament, and the former Speaker, made another appearance after the second water cannon incident and put the blame on Nika Melia of the United National Movement for leading the “ongoing storming” the CEC. Kobakhidze said Melia was “a criminal.”
“We warn them, that each and every one of them will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Polarization and aggression are caused not by the criminals being in the prisons, but by their continued presence in politics. The time will come very soon in Georgia when criminals are punished to the fullest extent of the law and serve their sentences in prison,” Kobakhidze remarked.
The Interior Ministry announced in the morning that 19 persons were detained for disturbing public order and disobeying the lawful demands of the police. It added that some 27 persons, including 14 law enforcers, three journalists and 10 protesters sustained injuries. In the meantime, several media outlets reported damage to their equipment.
Some journalists also reported the use of “gas” along with water cannons as they felt unwell and dizzy, but the police rebuffed these allegations. The Interior Ministry did not rule out, however during their morning briefing, that police might have used pepper spray. The TV footage showed that the LRAD also known as “sound cannons” deployed at the CEC, whose impact is often associated with the same symptoms. But their use was not confirmed by the police or verified independently.
CSOs, Public Defender Say Water Cannons Unjustified
The use of water cannons against the protesters was immediately condemned by the Public Defender Nino Lomjaria and the main civil society organizations.
The Public Defender dubbed the events outside CEC as “extremely sad developments,” and noted that using force on protesters without prior warning was “against the law.”
Transparency International Georgia, Young Lawyers Association, as well as International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), local watchdogs, said the use of water cannons were “unjustified” and that police gravely violated the right to assembly and manifestation.
“Instead of adequately responding to questions that the public has [concerning the organization of elections] and creating mechanisms of political dialogue on the government’s part, citizens of Georgia have to face the police, and the situation becomes harder to manage,” GYLA added.
Authorities should try to deescalate situation. Police force isn't an adequate response to legitimate grievances in #Georgia. Protest remains peaceful & despite warning to disperse, police has no cause for violent intervention into freedom of assembly at this stage. #GVote20 https://t.co/0cMpqkjHZJ— Giorgi Gogia (@Giorgi_Gogia) November 8, 2020
Giorgi Gogia, Associate Director of Europe and Central Asia Division at the Human Rights Watch, said “authorities should try to de-escalate the situation. “The police force isn’t an adequate response to legitimate grievances in Georgia. Protest remains peaceful & despite warning to disperse, police have no cause for violent intervention into the freedom of assembly at this stage,” he argued.
All of Georgia’s major opposition parties have gathered many thousands of their supporters outside the Parliament in the afternoon of Sunday, November 8, to protest what they term the “stolen elections” of October 31.
In the afternoon, the opposition voiced their three demands: 1) repeat elections 2) resignation of Tamar Zhvania, CEC chairperson, held responsble for “election rigging” in favor of the ruling party; 3) the release of “political prisoners,” including Giorgi Rurua, pro-opposition Mtavari Arkhi Shareholder, as well as the two former border demarcation experts that were detained during the pre-election period over alleged attempts to transfer lands to Azerbaijan. The opposition gave the ruling party leadership GD until 20:00 to meet these demands.
Responding to the opposition Vice Speaker Giorgi Kakhiani said in the afternoon: “It is their right to come to organize protests and to make absurd demands.”
At 20:00, UNM’s Nika Melia announced that GD proposed to the opposition to hold talks on Monday, November 9, but Melia said opposition rejected the proposal, as they expected immediate actions by the governing party to signal their readiness to meet their demands.
Melia and other opposition leaders then called on protesters to march towards CEC, located some 11 km away from the parliament building.
Hotly-Contested Election Outcome
All opposition parties that have crossed the 1% threshold to enter the parliament, according to CEC preliminary results have rejected the election outcome and refuse to enter the parliament. These included the UNM – the which took the largest chunk of the opposition vote, as well as the European Georgia, Lelo, Strategy Aghmashenebeli, Labor Party, the Citizens, as well as a Kremlin-friendly Alliance of Patriots, that does not join the opposition rallies.
According to the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), a key election watchdog, significant discrepancies in summary protocols were detected at 8% of polling stations. ISFED added that these violations could affect the election outcome by a maximum of 4,1%.
The opposition acknowledges that the Georgian Dream came first in the polls, but implies that the election irregularities mean that the leading party might not have had the majority sufficient for forming the single-party government. According to the preliminary results, the Georgian Dream has 74 mandates in the 150-member parliament, meaning it to win at least two of the 17 majoritarian runoffs to secure a simple majority.
The opposition leaders called on their supporters to gather at the Parliament building at 18:00 on November 9 and to continue the protest.
As the political crisis looms large, the Georgian national currency keeps plummeting against U.S. Dollar and Euro. The COVID-19 cases and deaths also surge.
Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia – who is isolated with a mild form of the novel coronavirus – said in the late morning of November 9, that “every process seeking to take matters to the streets, like what we saw yesterday, must be urgently translated into the legal & political platforms, in coordination with our international partners. Negotiations have no alternative in enhancing the quality of the country’s democratization.”
The government announced 22:00 – 05:00 COVID-related curfew in the Georgian capital and in six other largest cities, starting from Monday, November 9. It remains unknown, whether the protesters that will hit Tbilisi streets again at 18:00, will disperse by 22:00, or how the police plans to respond in case the rally does not observe the curfew.