Ben Sweeney’s Weblog

Got a Fulbright, living in Georgia for a year.

Protest, Etc.

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Well, I’ll write about the protest first, then get back to the posts I’ve been working on, hopefully in a few days, although I’ve only been going on the internet every 4 days or so (which makes me feel out of touch with a lot of things, but has been weirdly liberating).

So, to address my last post, I did go to the protest, and while it was bigger than I imagined, it was pretty disappointing. The rain stopped by the time the protest really got going, so there was a sizable turnout, with a few thousand people showing up (maybe 6-7 thousand). They stood in front of the Parliament building on the main street in Tbilisi, blocking traffic and listening to speeches given by opposition leaders from a truck parked on the sidewalk. It seemed like the crowd was about half pensioners, although people here often look older than they actually are. This was a good sign for me, studying pensioners and all, but I was feeling pretty bad, getting over a cold, and didn’t really feel like interacting with people, even though of course I did eventually. I met up with Stefano (taking pictures) and Ian (on his way to work) in the crowd and we mingled.

I talked with a guy about what the protests were about, and the clear theme was ousting the president, Saakashvili, which I already knew. While most of the people I talked to didn’t propose a clear alternative to Misha (Saakashvili’s nickname), this guy said that they were going to try to change Georgia into a parliamentary state with a prime minister, more responsible to the people. Then he showed me some brass knuckles he had in his coat in case any there was any provocation from the police. I told him that getting rid of Misha is exactly what the Russians wanted from the conflict, and asked what he felt about that. He said that everybody at the protest were Georgians, pointed out banners of groups with their names, such as ‘Patriots,’ etc., but he didn’t completely convince me of his point.

I listened to a lot of the speeches, and it was quite nice to understand a bunch of parts of them, mostly American/Russian words with Georgian grammatical endings that change the meaning, as well as a few commonly used Georgian words. One of the speakers was quite excited that Obama had been elected, and gave the traditional cheer “Garamajos Obama,” literally “Victory to Obama.” Meanwhile, the crowd seemed mixed on Obama. A bunch of people were carrying posters with Obama’s face on them – friend Dan wrote more about this if you are interested, but I don’t think everybody there supported Obama. Most Georgians were in favor of McCain, and it is felt that Misha was tight with him. A lot of this is because McCain is more hawkish, in line with Georgian national feelings, and the fact that he would support Georgia in taking a hard line against Russia. Perhaps because this was an Anti-Misha rally, there was so much support for Obama.

I talked to some other people, and they really presented a picture of an atomized civil society. The people in the crowd didn’t really interact much with each other. People came in groups of 2-6 or so and just stood or talked with the people the came with. This group of people tried to explain what is wrong with Misha, that Georgia does not have a free press, that one of their friends standing there had been fired from his job at the University because of his political views. These people did not come with an organized group, even though there were a few groups there with their banners.

After a few hours in front of the parliament, the protestors organized in the street and marched to the presidential palace (still under construction). There, there were more speeches, and I got a good view of the oration. Standing on the podium of the truck was a speaker in the middle, flanked by two people with flags wearing gas masks, as well as various other opposition members. Last year there were protests, but of a much larger scale, and perhaps less anticipated/ planned. The government used tear gas on the crowd and even declared martial law for a short time. This year it really seemed to me that there was little to no chance of tear gas. Last time, Misha’s international image really suffered. He likes to present himself as a pro-democracy leader and the martial law really worked against that. To me, the crowd seemed pretty subdued, and I did not feel very much energy from them. I was texting with my roommate about all this from the protest and this is what he sent me:

Message 6:
Not quite the
weather for it.                      [‘it’ being rioting and tear gas]
Keep an eye out
for riot cops..
Remember piss
works well
against jellyfish
and teargas ; )
seriously if misha
does do something
stupid and let off
gas or something.
Wet your tshirt
and use it to cover
your face.. And
run..
From:+995 98 XX XX XX
04:45pm 11/07/08

I think tear gas could have been a real risk if the crowd had been a serious threat to Misha as president, but it really wasn’t. I did get an e-mail from the US Embassy when I checked my inbox a few days later. It warned not to go to the protest I think, I really did not have much time to read it, especially since it was no longer pertinent.

I did end up finding a gasmask myself. I was feeling weird in the big crowd funneled into the tiny alley by Misha’s palace, so I headed for home. The nearby streets were mostly deserted, except for police officers every 30 feet, and a gasmask just lying on the ground. I picked it up and went home, then to the banya and a large dinner with spur-of-the-moment lessons in Canadian and US civics. Then back home again, where I got involved in one of the more crazy things that have happened yet to me, basically involving a Georgian girlfriend, a missing (presumed dead) boyfriend, later the police, and then it turns out, another woman. This was a chain of events that caused me to get many frantic phone calls and SMSs from the Georgian girl, and has not finished yet, but I believe that this is all I can write about it, unless like I write a book, and in that case it will be a whole chapter called “If I Wrote a Story About it, I Would Call it ‘The Scarf.’” Look for it on shelves in 2010.

Anyways, I did talk to a bunch of pensioners at the protest, and got an interesting impression. They were there protesting, but not necessarily for their rights, and instead just to get rid of Misha. I told a few of them that I understood that they were against the president, and asked if they were for anything, to which they responded, “Oh, yes, we are for being against the president.” I kind of sighed, hoping to hear some kind of proposed change or dream for the future, and moved on. As I said, I really feel that civil society is pretty weak and atomized here, meaning that it is not very unified or organized. It is less of a society where people can interact with each other, and more a society of individuals. They all came together as individuals, less as organized groups, to show their discontent with the government, but I really feel like sustained parties with grassroots support would be more effective. One of the problems is that there are so many political parties here, each taking only a small segment of the population. A parliamentary government, while perhaps more accountable and democratic in principle, would be unstable and easily dissolved, and I could see a lot of the action taking place behind closed doors (which seems to be the situation now).

The fact that there were so many pensioners at the protest is an indication that they have some kind of political consciousness, even if their goals are negative goals (I mean being anti-something without a clear or unified alternative of what they are for). The real thing I came to study were the protests held by pensioners demonstrating for increased pensions and rights. The lack of civil society is a little disheartening, although I am finding the country quite interesting and will wholeheartedly study this lack of civil society.

To address the other points of my previous post: the bombing in Vladikavkaz is pretty clearly not Georgian and I don’t think the Russians are trying to construe it as such, the Lari has gotten a little stronger, although it is still down (with high margins between the buying and selling price), and we have electricity again (but yeah, no internets).

See you later, more posts soon!

Written by bensweeney

November 10, 2008 at 3:15 pm

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