Georgia: tens of thousands of demonstrators to ask for EU membership
Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched Monday in Tbilisi (June 20), the capital of Georgia, to demand membership of the European Union of this former Soviet republic of the Caucasus.
Waving European and Georgian flags, around 120,000 demonstrators, according to an AFP estimate based on photos taken by drones, gathered outside the Georgian parliament, days after the European Commission’s recommendation to wait before to grant Tbilisi the status of candidate for membership.
Several pro-European organizations and all the opposition formations had called for a “march for Europe” on Monday evening in Tbilisi, in order to “to prove the commitment of the Georgian people to their European choice and to Western values”.
“Europe is a historic choice and aspiration for Georgians, for which all generations have made sacrifices”organizers said in the statement.
“Freedom, peace, sustainable economic development, the protection of human rights and justice are values that unite us all and which would be guaranteed by integration into the European Union”they added.
One of the organizers, human rights activist Shota Digmelashvili, read a manifesto announcing another rally on Friday and the launch of a “new popular movement” which will include opposition parties but will be dominated by civil activists.
“We will formulate our demands to the government and if it does not meet them, a non-violent resistance will sweep away all those who are derailing Georgia from its European path”did he declare.
“Green light to invade again”
One of the protesters, writer Malkhaz Kharbedia, 47, said that “every Georgian must take personal responsibility for our European hope to come true”.
“We took to the streets today because the time has come to rely only on ourselves, not on anyone else, the time of our personal responsibility, of our efforts, of our unwavering will, of our perseverance, he told AFP.
For another protester, Lili Nemsadze, a 68-year-old biologist, “denying Georgia EU candidate status will mean that we will remain in Russia’s sphere of influence”. Russian President Vladimir “Putin will interpret this as a green light to invade Georgia again.”
Twice annexed by Russia, in 1801 and 1921, Georgia was invaded in 2008 by Russian troops in a brief five-day war that left around 700 people dead. Russia also supports two separatist territories in Georgia.
Monday’s rally aims to send a signal to Brussels, as EU leaders are due to discuss this week whether or not to grant official candidate status to Georgia, as well as Ukraine and Moldova.
If the European Commission gave a positive opinion concerning Ukraine and Moldova, it nevertheless considered on Friday that Georgia must first carry out reforms, in particular political ones, before being able to claim this status.
The EU executive has recommended that Georgia see itself “offer the prospect of becoming a member of the European Union”a situation which however has no legal value.
“It is up to Georgia to accelerate (reforms) and move towards this open door”commented Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The Georgian Dream Party, in power in Tbilisi, said ” happy “ to have a “concrete roadmap”but judged “regrettable” that the Commission does not support candidate status at this time.
On Friday, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili also welcomed “the historic decision to give Georgia a European perspective”adding: “We will work with Brussels to implement all the requirements and we will obtain candidate status.”
The Georgian government has come under increasing criticism over its human rights record in recent years, with NGOs expressing concern over the decline in freedom of expression.
The European Commission has said that the conditions Tbilisi must meet to be placed on the official path to membership include an end to political polarisation, progress on media freedom, judicial and electoral reforms as well as “deoligarchisation », the fight against the stranglehold of certain oligarchs on whole sections of the economy.