Anti-government protest sparked by nightclub raids mars Georgian billionaire ex-premier’s return to politics

David Abuladze Feature 14 May 2018
Anti-government protest sparked by nightclub raids mars Georgian billionaire ex-premier’s return to politics

Georgia’s ruling Dream Party has elected its founding father and former prime minister, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili as chairman at the party congress on May 11 about five years after his exit from the politics.

Bidzina Ivanishvili founded Georgian Dream Party in 2012 and led it to the victory in the 2012 parliamentary election and served as prime minister for over a year before resigning and announcing his exit from politics in 2013. However, many in Georgian politics never ruled out his indirect role in the politics and often described him as the behind-the-curtain ruler of both the nation and the party.

The former prime minister explained his return to the top party post with the alleged confrontation within the party. He admitted challenges that had allegedly led to “certain confrontation” in the party and run against principles of democracy.

It is obvious that against the backdrop of challenges, certain confrontation occurred within the party that went beyond the scope of democracy and different views acceptable for a political team. And this precisely became a reason for my return to politics, Bidzina Ivanishvili told the 5th party congress on May 11.

In the meantime, the billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s return to politics after about five years break to become the chairman of Georgian Dream was marred by protests sparked by the nightclub raids in the capital.

The Georgian capital Tbilisi saw massive protests as thousands of young people took to the streets to protest against police raids of two nightclubs the previous night. One of the organisers of the demonstration was the White Noise Movement that advocates the liberalisation of drug laws.

Protesters lashed out at the police for using excessive force, alleged government complicity in the narcotics trade, and called for the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who backs strict rules against drug addiction.

Footballer turned politician Kakha Kaladze, who, after hanging up his boots, became the energy minister and is now the mayor of the Georgian capital and a member of the ruling party, slammed the raids as contradicting his efforts to promote Tbilisi's nightlife.

One of the protest organisers was the White Noise Movement that campaigns for the liberalisation of drug laws. Several hundred protesters, who rallied against police raids on Tbilisi’s top music clubs, have emptied the Rustaveli Avenue after six hours’ standoff with a group of hard-line nationalists and conservatives.

The rally outside the parliament building at 3 pm on May 13 went peacefully at the beginning, but the situation escalated after counter-rally participants managed to get closer to the protest. The group, consisting of several ultranationalist and conservative groups, chanted violent slogans against what they described as "the promotion of drug use", "moral decadence", and "the anti-Georgian" character of their opponents.

The counter-rally participants were halted by the police just fifty meters away from the parliament building outside the National Youth Palace. Additional reinforcements, including water cannons and riot police, were brought to the scene, sealing off the nearby streets with heavy police presence.

The situation remained tense for most of the evening with periodic escalations as the counter-rally participants attempted to unsuccessfully break into the police cordon to reach the parliament building.

The protesters, who rallied against the police raids, agreed to cease the protest shortly after midnight as their leaders agreed with Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia that they would scrutinize the May 12 raid on the nightclubs together and resume work on drug policy reform.

In the beginning, the protesters turned down proposals and refused to accept the terms, but the group agreed on the deal after Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia addressed the group personally and apologised for the handling of the Friday’s police raid.

Giorgi Gakharia also offered to the protesters to "move to a working regime", and invited their representatives to a meeting the following day to discuss details of the police nightclub raid.

Beka Tsikarishvili of the White Noise movement announced shortly afterwards that they would call off the demonstration and take a timeout until May 19 "to see how the working process unfolds". They protesters were then escorted out of the area by municipal buses.