Molly Corso in Tbilisi -
A bloody scuffle between pro-government protestors and supporters of President Mikheil Saakashvili is threatening to turn Georgia's festering political turmoil into open conflict. While both sides have made an effort to tone down the rhetoric and return to power-sharing since the incident on February 8, the distrust and dislike simmering between the government and the president's camp could continue to undermine efforts at cohabitation.
Georgia has been enmeshed in a messy experiment with political cohabitation for the past four months, since Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) party lost the October 1 parliamentary elections to Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition. Over the past few weeks, tensions have grown as the new government grapples with proposed constitutional reforms and consolidating its power base.
Political tension turned to physical blows - and at least one bloodied MP - on February 8 when protestors blocked Saakashvili supporters and members of his UNM party from entering the Parliamentary National Library to hear the president's State of the Union address.
The speech, traditionally given in the parliament building, was moved to the National Library after the Georgian Dream-controlled parliament objected to Saakashvili speaking in front of the legislature before MPs have determined which powers will remain with the president under the new constitutional reforms.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's head of foreign affairs, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule issued a warning to Georgia over the incident, underscoring the need for both sides "to act in a responsible way, and to refrain from any violence." The statement asked political parties to avoid using "processes or institutions of the state for partisan or for party political purposes", and emphasised the "paramount importance" of respect and "European values" in building democracy in Georgia.
Bloodied but not bowed
There was little sign of European values or respect on February 8, however, when police did little to stop protestors, including angry former prisoners and other pro-government supporters, from filling the street outside of the library in the hour before Saakashvili was scheduled to make his speech. The mob forced diplomats, MPs, officials and other guests to flee the building before the speech. Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, National Security Chief Giga Bokeria, and MP Chiora Taktakishvili were among the high-ranking UNM figures caught up in the melee. Taktakishvili suffered a bloody nose, and her attempts to get out of the crowd were broadcast on live television.
Recriminations and accusations soon followed, with each side eager to prove to a shocked public the other side was to blame for the chaos and violence. Irakli Gharibashvili, a close ally of Prime Minster Ivanishvili who holds the police portfolio as minister of internal affairs, blamed the UNM for inciting the crowd. Citing an existing police corridor and private entrance to the library designated for guests, Gharibashvili charged that the UNM officials made a path for the protestors to incite a clash. Saakashvili and other UNM officials, however, maintain that the police made no effort to control the mob or provide sufficient security.
But while both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili appeared eager to project an image of statesmanship, their public statements have been peppered with animosity, underscoring the partisan rhetoric that has characterised their power-sharing efforts since October.
On February 9, both the president and prime minister issued statements condemning the incident and calling for renewed talks between the two sides. Saakashvili gingerly offered the first olive branch, issuing a public invitation to Ivanishvili to discuss their political differences. "What happened on February 8 should never happen again in our country... We need to start a real cohabitation as prescribed by our constitution and as wished by our people," Saakashvili wrote. "I hope that the shameful event of February 8 will serve as a lesson and put an end to the cycle of harassment and hatred that started recently in our beloved Georgia."
Ivanishvili "denounced" the protest and violence, and promised a full investigation into the police response; three men were arrested for disturbing the peace and the police have asked Ugulava to answer questions relating to charges that he incited violence during the protest.
But while the prime minister agreed to enter talks with Saakashvili and the UNM over the contentious issues - including plans to reduce presidential powers and create a legally binding pledge to maintain Georgia's EU/Nato aspirations - he took offence at Saakashvili's "moralising" over the coalition's handling of the incident. He also warned that the coalition would not be dragged into "futile and lengthy negotiations" if the UNM is just trying to "buy time" for political gain and not engage in constructive dialogue.
Parliament Speaker Davit Usupashvili was tagged to lead the negotiations with Saakashvili on February 11, although the prime minister noted he was "ready" to join if necessary.
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