US, EU back Georgia protesters after thousands rally outside parliament

The United States and European Union expressed solidarity Monday with Georgia’s anti-government protesters who took to the streets after the ruling party backtracked on promises of electoral reforms.

In the biggest anti-government protest in years, more than 20,000 demonstrators rallied on Sunday outside the parliament building in the capital Tbilisi urging the government to resign and calling for new legislative elections.

But the ruling Georgian Dream party general secretary and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze flatly ruled out the possibility of early polls on Monday.

Speaking during a news conference, he accused the opposition of “destabilising political processes with cheap and destructive performances.”

In a joint statement earlier Monday, the US and EU embassies said they “recognise the deep disappointment of a wide segment of Georgian society at the failure of parliament to pass the constitutional amendments required to move to fully proportional parliamentary elections in 2020.”

“We fully support the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” they said.

On Sunday night, the rally dispersed peacefully but entrances to the parliament building remained blocked by dozens of protesters who say no lawmakers will be allowed to pass through.

On Monday morning, Georgian Dream MPs were not allowed into the building by a crowd of protesters who shouted “Rats!” and “Slaves!” and denounced Georgia’s richest man and party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili.

As of Monday afternoon, traffic remained blocked by protesters on Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, and several other streets.

At a protest on Thursday, some 10,000 people rallied in Tbilisi, vowing to press ahead with “permanent” protests until their demands for snap polls are met.

Plummeting popularity

Opposition parties called for the rallies after forming a rare united front against the ruling party, whose MPs last week voted down legislation to hold parliamentary elections next year under a new proportional voting system.

The opposition accused oligarch Ivanishvili—who is widely believed to be the man in charge in Georgia—of being behind the move.

Twelve ruling party lawmakers—including two deputy parliament speakers—have left Georgian Dream to protest the controversial vote.

The US and EU embassies said the failure to pass the legislation “has increased mistrust and heightened tensions between the ruling party and other political parties and civil society.”

Protesters say the ruling party unfairly benefits from the current voting system.

The Georgian Dream party won nearly 77 percent of seats in the 2016 parliamentary election despite garnering only 48.7 percent of the vote.

The opposition at the time denounced the polls as rigged.

Ivanishvili announced “large-scale political reform” following a summer of protests that saw 240 people injured in a police crackdown.

Two peaceful protesters including a teenaged girl lost an eye at the time.

In power since 2012, the ruling party has seen its popularity plummet amid widespread discontent over economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on its commitment to democracy.

Critics accuse Ivanishvili of persecuting political opponents, suffocating critical media, and creating a corrupt political system where his private interests dominate government decision-making.

(AFP)