Photo: Mariam Giunashvili
From March 7 to March 9, mass protests erupted in Tbilisi against the Georgian analogue of the Russian “foreign agents” law. It proposed a registry for media and NGOs which receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad. Officially it targets the disclosure of money flows from abroad, but critics fear it could become an instrument for repression of the opposition. Police violently dispersed the protesters. But first the president, Salome Zurabishvili, took their side, and on March 9 the country's ruling party, Georgian Dream, promised to drop the law in the second hearing. Photographer Mariam Giunashvilii, also known as Mzesu, spent all three days of the protests at the parliament and told Mediazona what was happening there.
I'm based in Tbilisi, work as a bartender and document parties and protests here. I've been going to lots of demonstration before, but after some time I just stopped, and moreover, I couldn't photograph them. At some point I realised protests just not that strong and didn't do what they were supposed to be doing. I started going to demonstrations again in support of Ukraine, but it was still hard for me to take pictures. But then everything changed. What happened now, it was crazy. I didn't expect it. And I think nobody really expected it.
On March 7, I was going to photograph a party and thought I'd just stop at the demonstration on the way there. But everything escalated very quickly: it was calm one moment and then the special forces and the police suddenly were so aggressive. People came to protest against this law—and were met with violence, cars with water cannons.
On March 8, twice as many people came out. So many people were in front of the parliament, that it was impossible to move around properly. At first, everything was very calm and people thought nothing would happen happen. Then, through a megaphone, someone said: we're giving you a one hour to drop the law. My friend called me to go behind the parliament building, and was crazy there. The windows were broken—by those who were inside, so they could throw water at us.
I had a feeling that something very big was happening. As I said, I could not photograph demonstrations the last few years: sometimes people didn't even know what they were standing for there. But now I felt that everybody knew why they came. People were really, really angry. They were ready to do anything. And I'm talking about very different people, of all ages. Everybody was fighting against this “Russian” law, they didn't want to be part of Russia.
Of course, there were some people who were sent from the other side to provoke us. Most of them were drunk and they were saying we should throw stuff at the special forces. But we were trying not to do anything like that. People were coming up to the police, trying to talk to them: “You are our people. They don't care about you just like they don't care about us. Why are you fighting against us? Put down your shields, we're gonna find you other jobs.” But they were just standing there with poker faces, you know. They were very aggressive. Threw gas and used pepper spray even when people were just standing there. I tried to come closer to the police to take a picture—and they maced me, straight away, even though I didn't do anything.
Sometimes they would come out and take people—even those who were just standing with their backs to them. I was always in the front, and at some point the police were screaming at me: “Get out of here, you are a girl, you have to be safe.” And I was shouting back: “Don't hit me—and then I'm gonna be safe!”
On the second day, people came much more prepared. The were forming groups, sharing the safety rules, everyone helped each other, some were going around with special liquid to put in your eyes, for gas. In the later hours, not that many people stayed, of course, but they were unstoppable.
That day, many people experienced this feeling for the first time: when you can't breathe and you don't know how to get out. You're running, but the police is throwing gas—and not only in front of them, but way back, where you are trying to escape to. Everything was white from the gas everywhere. At some point, I felt that I couldn't breathe anymore. I fell down, didn't know where to go. But then I saw that there was this gallery door opened. People were rushing in, so I went there too.
I could never imagine being in a gallery in that situation. But there were a lot of people inside, they felt really bad because of the gas, just like me. And I was just lying on the bench. But the alarm went off, and this security guy closed the door: he said he won't let us out until some special person comes and checks everything that everything is in its right order. I mean, I totally understand he was doing his job, but what the fuck?! Crazy stuff is happening on the streets, we have to get back out of there.
And then one guy came up to the guard and said, aggressively, enough. We told him that there were cameras in the gallery, and they can call us afterwards, if something was wrong. And we escaped.
They were a lot of broken windows, some damaged police cars. At some point I saw some of the protesters just take this one car and put it in front of the special forces. A few people were even screaming: “Don't set it on fire!” It really was scary, the car could explode, but we were ready to stand there. And when the car did set on fire, we started mocking the police: “Where is your water now?!” And they weren't doing anything. But as soon as the fire went out, they came at us really crazy.
I saw some Russian people protesting as well, including some of my friends. And there were posters like “Russian women against Russian law,” or “I ran away from this in Russia—and now it's the same here.” But I must say, whenever I would hear Russian in the crowd, it didn't feel good...
It's a very sensitive topic. The situation here is bad, because so many Russians came, rent became so high that I'm afraid that they can kick me out from my home. I try very hard to imagine myself in these people's shoes. If I lived in Russia and wasn't supporting Putin, of course, I would want to run away as well. But many Russians came just because they lost their usual comfort. And if you you're going somewhere, at least know the history with that country. A lot of these people don't even know Russia for many years has been occupying Georgian territories. We had these tables with information about it written on them in our bar, and some Russians who came in had no idea.
There are different opinions about protests as well. Some people say Russians should come out on the streets, others thins that this is our own Georgian fight. But when you're talking about such huge demonstrations, of course, there's going to be a difference of opinion.
We were always protesting against the Russian influence here. Because of the war in Ukraine, it became even more sensitive. It's like we're always on the edge: every day you wake up and yfear that somehow you're gonna end up back in USSR. It's a real danger for us, we are really scared of this.
This is why the attempt to pass this law [about “foreign agents”] affected us so much. Of course, they said, that it's a rational but they have this kind of legislation in different countries as well... But if this law were to work, then even the little European chances that we have will disappear. All of the help we get from the West, the informal transition of knowledge, ability to see the world—it's all going away. And also the NGOS that are helping people—people with disabilities, women, the LGBTQI community—they are all getting support from the West. And if you don't reduce it, you can end up in prison. That's just insane!
They law was dropped—I think they did it just to calm down the situation. These last days were crazy, but people were returning back to the streets. I hope now they are ready to fight if it's comes back. And it is going to come back.
Editors: D.G., Dmitry Tkachev
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