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Archive for the ‘Tamar Land of the Caucasus’ Category

Georgia’s ruling party announces electoral changes

June 24, 2019

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The leader of Georgia’s ruling party said Monday that the ex-Soviet nation will hold the next parliamentary election based entirely on a proportionate system, fulfilling a key demand of anti-government protesters.

The statement from Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream party, followed four days of protests in the capital. Thousands of demonstrators have rallied in front of parliament, demanding changes in the electoral law and the ouster of the interior minister whom they blame for a violent dispersal of a rally Thursday.

Throngs of demonstrators tried to storm parliament that day, angered by a Russian lawmaker taking the speaker’s seat during an international meeting of lawmakers. The protest reflected simmering anger against Russia, which routed Georgia in a 2008 war and maintains a military presence in Georgia’s two breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The protesters consider Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man who made his fortune in Russia, a conduit of Moscow’s influence and see the ruling party as overly friendly to Russian interests. Unfazed by Ivanishvili’s announcement, a motorcade of protesters drove across the capital Monday to the Interior Ministry headquarters to push for the minister’s resignation.

Thousands of protesters gathered in front of the parliament building in the evening for the fifth consecutive night of demonstrations, calling for the interior minister to step down and pressing other demands.

The protests have marked the largest outpouring of anger against Georgian Dream since it took power in 2012. Officials said at least 240 people were injured when riot police used tear gas and water cannons and fired rubber bullets to disperse the protesters. More than 300 demonstrators have been arrested.

Demonstrators have returned to parliament for daily rallies, demanding the release of those detained, the ouster of the nation’s interior minister and changes in the electoral law to have legislators chosen fully proportionally rather than the current mix of party-list and single-mandate representatives. The opposition believes that single-mandate races favor the ruling party.

Ivanishvili, in his first public appearance since the crisis erupted, said Georgian Dream has agreed to change the election law earlier than planned and to hold next year’s parliamentary election based on a fully proportional system. He also announced that the ruling party offered to drop the threshold of 5% of the vote for parties to get represented.

“We are seeing today that the society wants changes,” Ivanishvili said. “Our initiative opens the way for large-scale political changes.” Later Monday, some demonstrators said they were unsatisfied by Ivanishvili’s offer to change the electoral code.

Dropping the 5% barrier means “representatives of small parties that receive material aid from Russia can go to parliament. The devil is in the details, and it is very dangerous,” protester Irakli Sikharulidze said.

Moscow has responded to anti-Russian protests by ordering a ban on Russian flights to Georgia starting July 8. Russia’s transportation ministry also banned Georgian airlines from flying to Russia, citing their debts and safety issues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Monday the flight ban reflected concerns about the safety of Russian travelers amid what he described as “Russophobic hysteria” in Georgia. He told reporters that the ban could be lifted after the tensions abate.

The flight ban deals a serious economic blow to the Caucasus nation, which has annually hosted more than 1 million Russian tourists, attracted by its scenic mountains, lush sea coast and the renowned wine culture.

It echoes bans that Russia imposed in 2006 on flights and imports of Georgian wine and mineral water as tensions rose between the countries. Air connections were restored in 2010 and Russia lifted the wine import ban in 2013.

On Monday, the Russian consumer regulator Rospotrebnadzor hinted at a possible new ban, saying that it has registered a steady decline in the quality of imported Georgian wine. In the past, Russia often cited sanitary reasons for food imports bans widely seen as politically driven.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Georgians keep protesting despite speaker’s resignation

June 21, 2019

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The speaker of Georgia’s parliament stepped down Friday in the wake of violent clashes that left at least 240 people injured, but the move failed to assuage protesters, who returned to the streets demanding that the interior minister also step down over a brutal police response.

A night of clashes Thursday was sparked by a Russian lawmaker who took the speaker’s seat as a group of international lawmakers met at the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi. It angered the opposition, which sees the current Georgian government as overly friendly to Russian interests.

The protests mark the largest outpouring of anger against the ruling Georgian Dream since it took power in 2012. Officials said at least 240 people were injured when riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and unleashed water cannon on protesters outside Georgia’s parliament building during the clashes that lasted into early Friday. More than 100 people are still in the hospital, and two people lost eyes because of the rubber bullets, according to Giorgi Kordzakhiya, director of Tbilisi’s New Hospital.

Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze blamed opposition leaders for the violence, saying they hijacked a “genuine” public outpouring but then “violated the law and the Constitution.” Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who was out of the country on an official visit, handed in his resignation but several thousand protesters returned to the parliament building Friday, demanding the interior minister also resign. Many wore eyepatches in solidarity with those who lost their eyes.

President Salome Zurabishvili also cut short a foreign trip to return to the capital. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday ordered that the country’s airlines stop transporting Russian citizens to Georgia beginning July 8, citing national security concerns. The reason for delaying the implementation wasn’t immediately clear. He also ordered officials to assist in bringing Russians home from Georgia.

The move carries echoes of Russia’s full ban on transport links with Georgia in 2006 amid rising tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi. Air connections were restored in 2010, two years after a short war between Russia and Georgia.

Anti-Russian sentiments run deep in Georgia, which made a botched attempt to regain control over breakaway province of South Ossetia during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, sparking the 2008 war that routed the Georgian military in five days of fighting. Moscow then recognized the independence of South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia and set up military bases there.

Georgian Dream, which is led and funded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has controlled parliament and dominated the nation’s political scene since in 2012. “We will do everything to oust this government that serves Russia,” said 32-year-old lawyer Demetre Saladze, who was among the protesters Friday.

Engineer Vakhtang Kiriya, 28, vowed that the protesters will make the government answer for the brutal police crackdown. “We will fight until Ivanishvili and his team flee Georgia,” he said. “They should get ready to board their jets.”

Sergei Gavrilov, the Russian lawmaker who sparked the conflict by taking the Georgian speaker’s seat, on Friday blamed the clashes on “radical groups” who he said were trying to stage a “coup.” Speaking on Russian state TV, he rejected reports that he was fighting on the side of separatists in Abkhazia, saying he had only been there on “humanitarian missions.”

Russia and Georgia broke off diplomatic relations after the 2008 war, but steps have been made in recent years to restore ties, including Georgia scrapping visitor visas for Russians and Russia lifting a ban on Georgian wine and fruit imports. Still, animosity toward Russia remains strong due to the Kremlin’s support of the two separatist regions.

Other Russian officials blamed Georgian politicians for trying to undermine the slow thaw in relations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that thousands of Russian tourists vacationing were in Georgia, as a reason of Moscow’s concern about what he described as an anti-Russian “provocation.”

Nataliya Vasilyeva, Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow and Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi contributed to this report.

Georgia’s president to fly home to deal with clashes

June 21, 2019

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia’s president has cut short a foreign visit to return to the capital Tbilisi after dozens of people were injured in clashes between protesters and police. Salome Zurabishvili, who took office as Georgia’s first female president in December, said in televised remarks in Minsk, Belarus, on Friday that she is returning to Tbilisi to handle the crisis.

Nearly 70 people were treated in hospitals for injuries in the night of clashes on Thursday after riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and unleashed water cannons on protesters outside Georgia’s parliament building.

The unrest was sparked by the appearance of Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov, a Communist Party member, in the building as part of an assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries.

Georgia ‘will join NATO’: Stoltenberg

Tbilisi (AFP)

March 25, 2019

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday reiterated the bloc’s commitment to grant former Soviet republic Georgia eventual membership despite Moscow’s fierce opposition.

Stoltenberg was in the Georgian capital Tbilisi to attend 12-day joint NATO-Georgia military exercises that kicked off last week.

“The 29 allies have clearly stated that Georgia will become a member of NATO,” Stoltenberg told a news conference alongside the country’s Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze.

“We will continue working together to prepare for Georgia’s NATO membership.”

In an apparent reference to Russia, he said that no country had the right to influence NATO’s open-door policy.

“We are not accepting that Russia — or any other power — can decide what (NATO) members can do,” he said.

At a 2008 summit in Romania, NATO leaders said Georgia would join the bloc at an unspecified future date but have so far refused to put the country on a formal path to membership.

The prospect of Georgia joining NATO is seen by the Kremlin as a Western incursion into its traditional sphere of influence.

Bakhtadze said for his part that Moscow had no right to prevent a sovereign country from choosing “its security arrangements”.

“NATO membership is the choice of the Georgian people and is enshrined in our constitution,” he said.

Held at the Krtsanisi Georgia-NATO Joint Training and Evaluation Center outside Tbilisi, the joint drills involve 350 servicemen from the US, Britain, France, Germany and 17 other allied nations as well as Azerbaijan, Finland, and Sweden.

Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow over Georgia’s pro-Western trajectory and control of the Black Sea nation’s breakaway regions led to a brief but bloody war in 2008.

During the conflict over Moscow-backed separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia routed Georgia’s small military in just five days and recognized the independence of the breakaway territories.

Moscow then stationed military bases there in what the West and Tbilisi have denounced as an “illegal military occupation.”

Last year, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Georgia’s eventual NATO entry “could provoke a terrible conflict”.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Georgia_will_join_NATO_Stoltenberg_999.html.

Georgia’s 1st woman president is inaugurated amid protests

December 16, 2018

VELISTSIKHE, Georgia (AP) — The first woman president of Georgia has been sworn into office amid continued protests from opposition figures who allege her election was tainted. President Salome Zurabishvili said during her inauguration speech on Sunday that she would work “to promote our country’s integration process into NATO and the EU.”

Opposition activists clashed with police after authorities blocked access to the inauguration’s venue in the city of Telavi. Zurabishvili, a French-born former foreign minister, won a November 28 runoff against opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze. The government favored her in the race.

The opposition alleges gross electoral violations occurred during the presidential election that make the outcome illegitimate. Observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have said the government was overly involved in the election campaign.

Alleged election malfeasance protested in Georgian capital

December 02, 2018

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Thousands of opposition protesters took to the streets of Georgia’s capital to dispute the result of a recent presidential election and to call for an early parliamentary election.

The protesters marched with sacks of onions and potatoes on Sunday to mock what they claim were government efforts to bribe voters by distributing free vegetables. Opposition leaders claim the government tilted the vote in the winning candidate’s favor.

Official returns showed former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili won the Nov. 28 presidential runoff with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Her opponent, Grigol Vashadze, pulled in just over 40 percent.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said the election was administered well, but that state resources were misused in the campaign and “one side enjoyed an undue advantage.”

French-born diplomat claims victory in Georgia vote

November 28, 2018

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — A French-born former foreign minister of Georgia celebrated what she claims is her victory in a tight presidential runoff Wednesday that marks the last time Georgians elect their head of state by popular vote.

An exit poll conducted by Edison Research for Rustavi 2 television showed the 66-year-old Salome Zurabishvili backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party winning 55 percent of the vote, while her rival, the 60-year-old Grigol Vashadze, who was supported by a coalition of opposition forces, was trailing behind with 45 percent.

The Central Election Commission said that with just over half of all the precincts counted, Zurabishvili was leading with 58 percent while Vashadze had 42 percent of the ballot. Polls opened at 8 a.m. (0400 GMT) and closed at 8 p.m. (1600 GMT).

Edison Research interviewed 15,000 voters across 115 precincts in Georgia. It said its poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Vashadze, who also served a stint as Georgia’s foreign minister, refused to concede defeat, saying he would wait for full preliminary results, which are expected Thursday.

Georgia, a nation of nearly 4 million people in the volatile Caucasus region south of Russia, is transitioning to a parliamentary republic. Presidential powers have been substantially reduced with the prime minister becoming the most powerful figure in the country. After the new president’s six-year term ends, future heads of state will be chosen by delegates.

“Our choice is peaceful Georgia, united country and of equal citizens,” Zurabishvili said after seeing the exit poll showing her victory. “Our choice is the dialogue with those parts of the society who today has not voted for me and who today don’t agree with us. But we all are citizens of one country.”

Though the election lacks the usual importance, it is seen as a crucial test for Georgian Dream that is led and funded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili who made his fortune in Russia. It has dominated the nation’s political scene since defeating former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement in 2012. Ivanishvili briefly served as prime minister in 2012-2013 and has remained a prominent force in Georgian politics ever since.

After the polls closed, Saakashvili spoke on Rustavi 2 television, claiming that the vote was rigged and calling for protests to annul the results. Zurabishvili ran as an independent but was backed by Georgian Dream, while Vashadze was supported by a coalition that includes the United National Movement. They won 39 and 38 percent respectively in the first round last month.

Zurabishvili was born in France and served as French ambassador to Georgia until becoming Georgia’s foreign minister in 2004. She was fired the following year and some Georgians still look at her foreign background with suspicion and criticize her for her contention that Georgia started the 2008 war with Russia.

Zurabishvili’s opponents cast her as a pro-Russia candidate — the claim she and Georgian Dream strongly denied. Zurabishvili argued that her background is a strong qualification for serving as Georgian president as the country seeks closer ties with the European Union.

“Diplomatic work in France for me was also a work for Georgia,” Zurabishvili said. “Everyone knew that I am Georgian who fights for its country. I knew very well the price of independence and freedom, because I am the child of the country whose ancestors have sacrificed themselves for the independence and freedom.”

Vashadze, who served as Georgia’s foreign minister in 2008-2012, vowed to re-establish control over the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by peaceful means. Georgia entirely lost control over both provinces after the war with Russia a decade ago, which erupted when Saakashvili made a failed attempt to reclaim sovereignty over South Ossetia.

“Georgia has outlived many empires and will definitely outlive the current Russian empire,” Vashadze said. He also vowed to pardon Saakashvili, who was stripped of his citizenship in 2015 and sentenced in absentia for abuse of power.

Observers saw the vote as a key test before the 2020 parliamentary election. “For Georgian Dream, the stakes are especially high and it struggles very much … to win in the second round,” said Gia Nodia, the founder of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, an independent think-tank.

Earlier this month, the Georgian government announced that a charitable foundation controlled by Ivanishvili promised to write off the debts of 600,000 people, a move described by critics as an attempt to buy votes before the runoff.

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