Protestors massed for a second night in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, fending off intermittent clashes with plain clothed policemen with flagpoles conveniently turned into instruments of self defense. The Tbilisi protests were launched on May 21, 2011 by Nino Burjanadze, Georgia’s former Parliamentary Speaker, shortly after her supporters gathered for what had been estimated to be a 2,000 person strong rally in the Black Sea port city of Batumi, which ended with arrests of peaceful protestors and organizers, including a staunch former government supporter, Temuri Chanturishvili.
Batumi, often referred to as the jewel of Georgia for its highly trumpeted tourism potential, has historically been a center of support for the now controversial figure, President Mikhail Saakashvili, especially during the early months of the country’s 2003 Rose Revolution. Having long been under the tight grip of a Mafioso leader – Aslan Abashidze – who enjoyed cozy relations with the Kremlin, Batumi (capital of the Adjara region) was wrestled away from the leader by the central government thanks to the “Our Adjara” movement, which involved large scale popular student support back in April – May 2004.
Instrumental in bringing students out onto the streets in support of democratic change was Temuri Chanturishvili, a dedicated director of a central government-funded local teacher training college. The college gave students from remote villages and disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to specialize in the teaching of English and other foreign languages. It became a magnate even for gifted students who were unable to pay the bribes demanded by Abashidze and his educational gatekeepers at the time.
Nino Burjanadze, joins Geogian protesters as they rally in the capital. © Daro Sulakauri/Demotix
Chanturishvili slowly came to realize that the promises of the Rose Revolution were half hearted. As soon as Saakashvili and his supporters reasserted central control in Batumi with his help, he witnessed with great pain how many in Abashidze’s old network of patronage began reappearing and were awarded key positions in the new “democratic” government. It has since been a tough new reality for Chanturishvili. His daughter lost her job with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs allegedly because of her his affiliation with the Nino Burjanadze’s political party “People Assembly”, and his family has been threatened, property has been confiscated and his car vandalized.
Following the Saturday protests, Chanturishvili was rounded up on the evening of May 20, 2011 along with what is thought to be at least a dozen other pro-democracy activists and rally organizers. The reasons remain unclear; however, they appear to be connected an incident in which unknown assailants had thrown stones during the Batumi rally. (Chanturishvili can be seen in a video clip of the rally, facing and walking to the right of the camera exactly 40 seconds into the recording.)
Access to information is still limited, and Chanturishvili’s plight is still largely unknown. His wife and two daughters are concerned about his health given his age – nearly 60 – and deteriorating health, and they have not been able to contact him. As of now, they do know that those arrested have been imprisoned for 45 days in pre-trial detentions. However, such short-term sentences in Georgia can easily translate into torture and unexplained death, especially for those who have been arrested for political reasons. The problem is compounded by the fact that anyone who says anything against the ruling party led by Saakashvili is labeled as a Russian stooge, a convenient euphemism that the government has freely applied since the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
It is too early to fully predict the fate of Chanturishvili and others caught up in the onslaught of authoritarianism in Georgia, but it appears that such a reaction to recent waves of legal protests portends the government’s fear of the people and their aspirations for an open government and constitutional rights.