TBILISI, Georgia: Tens of thousands of Georgians staged a fresh rally on Friday, demanding the resignation of the prime minister, a day after European Union leaders deferred Tbilisi’s candidacy to join pending political reforms.
Georgia applied for EU membership together with Ukraine and Moldova, days after Russia launched all-out war on Ukraine.
On Thursday, EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau but said Tbilisi could only become an official candidate once outstanding issues were addressed.
The EU anthem, the Ode to Joy, was performed outside the Georgian parliament, where tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered on Friday evening, waving Georgian and EU flags.
Organised by Georgia’s leading pro-democracy groups and supported by opposition forces, the rally was held amid growing anger against the government over the failure to secure EU candidate status.
“We, the Georgian people, demand that (Prime Minister) Irakli Garibashvili resign and that a new government be set up to implement all the reforms required by the European Union,” one of the rally organisers, Shota Digmelashvili, told the crowd.
“We give the government a week’s time to meet our demands,” he said, as demonstrators shouted “Resign!”
He announced a new mass rally for July 3, “which will not disperse until oligarchic rule is dismantled” — a reference to the billionaire founder of the ruling party, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, is widely believed to be calling the shots in Georgia despite having no official political role.
Later in the evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the rally via video link.
“We are free people, free countries and will remain free forever. Ukraine will help Georgia as you follow the European path. Ukraine and Georgia, together forever!” he said as crowds burst into applause.
Zelensky also thanked hundreds of Georgians who have taken up arms to fight in the ranks of Ukraine’s military against the invading Russian troops.
One of the demonstrators, 55-year-old medic Kote Gulua, said: “There is little if any hope the government is willing to carry out all the reforms which the EU expects from Georgia.”
“The Ivanishvili-controlled government has completely lost credibility and must go. They are the main barrier to our EU membership,” he told AFP.
On Thursday, EU leaders nonetheless “recognised Georgia’s European perspective”, a move President Salome Zurabishvili hailed as “historic”.
Prime Minister Garibashvili said his government was “mobilised” to meet EU requirements on time “so that we get candidate status as soon as possible”.
In a statement issued on Friday, the ruling Georgian Dream party defended its democratic record and accused the opposition of “plans to overthrow the authorities by organising anti-government rallies”.
In what was the biggest demonstration in decades, at least 120,000 Georgians had taken to the streets on Monday in support of the country’s EU membership bid.
The rally organisers announced at the time the launch of a “new popular movement” that would include opposition parties but be dominated by civil activists.
The deferral of Georgia’s candidacy had been a foregone conclusion after the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — said last week that Tbilisi must implement sweeping political reforms by the end of 2022 before it is put on a formal membership path.
The EU conditions for granting Georgia candidate status include ending political polarisation, improving the freedom of the press and the courts, electoral reforms and “de-oligarchisation”.
Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling on the EU to impose personal sanctions on Ivanishvili for his “destructive role” in Georgia’s political and economic life.
Ivanishvili insists he has retired from politics.
The Georgian Dream government has faced mounting international criticism over perceived backsliding on democracy, seriously damaging Tbilisi’s ties with Brussels.