Dozens of people were detained in Georgia after anti-government protesters attempted to block the parliament building in central Tbilisi. The unrest started when the ruling party went back on a key reform promise.
Riot police drove protesters away from the Georgian parliament building and cleared the blockade at Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, on Monday. Officers in helmets and riot gear gave the protesters 30 minutes to clear the area before using water cannon against the crowds. While a Reuters journalist reported two officers firing tear gas, the authorities later denied using the measure.
The Interior Ministry said that six people, including two police employees, were injured during the clearing operation and that 37 people were detained.
Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze said that blocking entrances to the parliament was illegal.
"The police acted competently and within the law," he said in a statement.
Ruling party stops its own reform bid
Anti-government protests started last week after the ruling party, Georgian Dream, failed to deliver on a key reform promise. The Georgian Dream leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, pledged "large-scale political reform" after facing massive demonstrations in June. The key aspect of the reform would involve changing the system that Georgia uses to select lawmakers. Under the current system, nearly one-half of the 150 seats are reserved for the candidates that manage to win over 50% of the votes in an initial vote or a runoff. The rest are divided proportionally between the parties. In practice, the system tends to boost the ruling party.
The proposed bill would see the proportional system implemented across the board.
However, Georgian Dream rejected their own bill last Thursday and said that the 2020 election would be held under the current system. The outrage over the move comes as the opposition accuses Ivanishvili of persecuting political opponents, clamping down on critical media and monopolizing state power for his private interests.
Western diplomats back protesters
Around 20,000 people rallied in Tbilisi to demand a snap election Sunday, with some of them pledging to block the parliament until their terms are met. Protesters were seen flying EU and NATO flags.
Western diplomats expressed solidarity with the protest, with the EU delegation and the US Embassy in Georgia saying they "recognize the deep disappointment of a wide segment of Georgian society" at the bill's failure.
"We fully support the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression," they said in a joint statement on Sunday.
Italian Ambassador Enrico Bartoli said that the diplomatic corps urged opposition representatives to stay within the law. Bartoli told reporters that the international community would not dictate to Georgia which electoral system was more suitable.
"This is a sovereign choice," Bartoli said on Monday.
dj/dr (dpa, AP, Reuters, AFP, Interfax)