Civil Protests and the Use of Force

Ghia Nodia

What Should Be Justified?

At first glance, there is a near consensus in Georgia towards the developments in Ukraine: we want Ukraine to be oriented towards Europe, we expressed solidarity with the EuroMaidan demands and were happy about their victory, and we, naturally, condemn Russia's aggression in Crimea. Although the tone of the statements made by the government and the political opposition vary (and this difference counts), there is no disagreement in terms of basic principles between them.

However, Georgian politics would not be Georgian politics had it not turned these developments into an arena for the traditional partisan fight. When the United National Movement (UNM) enthusiastically supported the EuroMaidan protest, it was instantly accused of applying double standards: was it not you that broke up the opposition protests of 7 November 2007 and 26 May 2011 in Tbilisi?

Politicians have long been accused of applying double standards. It is not important whether the UNM will be blamed for this sin in this particular case, but two important questions certainly emerge: When should we support protest masses, even if they violate the law? And, conversely: When is it correct for the government to oppose such movements by applying force?

In the past I made many progressive intellectuals angry for justifying (including on the pages of Tabula) the forceful break up of the 26 May rally. It is, therefore, natural for me to revisit this issue against the backdrop of the developments in Ukraine. But first, let me briefly recap my personal position towards the abovementioned events. The decision of the Georgian government to break up the 7 November demonstrations by using force was politically wrong (although the demonstrators did provide the government with the formal grounds for doing so); even more so, there was no justification for the punitive action undertaken against the Imedi TV company – with the police storming it and taking it off the air. President Mikheil Saakashvili subsequently stepping down and calling early presidential elections was an indirect admission of these mistakes. The break up of the 26 May protest rally with the use of force was, however, a correct and necessary step in every respect, although the police used excessive force in doing so. (I cannot help adding that no matter what we may think about the methods of dispersal, the incarceration of the former Interior Minister for that by the current government is a clear example of arbitrary and politically motivated "justice").

The recent Ukrainian example is not clear-cut either. Ukrainians had a full right to voice their protest in mass demonstrations against Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. But the use of violent methods by the protesters and the subsequent toppling of a bad, but legitimate, president with mass rallies sets a dangerous precedent for Ukraine. Moreover, even though there is zero justification for Russia's invasion of Crimea, even Putin needed an excuse to take that step and thus used the impediments of the constitutional processes of Ukraine to this end.

At the same time, Yanukovych also pushed the situation to the point where radical elements stepped up their activity. By that moment the people began resorting to violence, the protesters had had legitimate arguments for having been left with no other choice, whilst the government had lost the moral and political capital that makes the use of force against offending masses legitimate.

How can I mete out these assessments as to what is right and what is wrong? After all, is it even possible to make an objective measurement? Perhaps it would be better to get accustomed to the idea that double standards will always dominate politics and just admit: "our guys" are always correct whereas "they" are always wrong. The key thing is thus to choose "our guys" correctly: if you support a historically fair or progressive cause, any method is justified.

Progressives and regressives

That argument was applied by a representative of the UNM when responding, in an irritated tone, to a journalist's question as to whether the UNM, which broke up the 26 May rally, has any qualms about supporting the protests of the Ukrainians. The representative answered that it is impossible to compare these two events – on 26 May, a pro-Western government in Tbilisi fought against pro-Russian forces, whereas in Kiev, a pro-Russian government opposes pro-Western demands.

Such an answer from a supporter of democracy is unacceptable. In a democracy every person has the right to freedom of expression, including in the form of mass demonstrations. It is apparent that the organizer of 26 May protest, Nino Burjanadze, was playing the Russian card, although she did not use openly pro-Russian slogans in that specific rally. But, what if such people, those who believe that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a tragedy for Georgia and that we should now aspire to join the Eurasian Union instead of NATO or the EU, decide to come together in protest – should they not have the right to publicly defend their opinions?

In general, this position can also be refuted. At various times, democratic countries have banned open Nazi or communist propaganda. Doing so was a restriction of the freedom of expression, but was justified by seeking the protection of the fundamental institutions of democracy. After the Russian aggression of 2008, we can also declare that expressing an openly pro-Russian position, and even advocating joining the Eurasian Union, contain signs of hostility against Georgia. On the other hand, it is logical to assume that in the case of joining, or even aspiring to join, the Eurasian Union, Georgia will be less democratic than it would be in the event of joining the EU and NATO. Why can't freedom of expression be temporarily restricted for pro-Russian forces if this is conducive to the eventual victory of democracy?

Georgia, however, did not embark on that path and, in my opinion, it was right in not doing so. Restrictions against anti-democratic ideologies are, as a rule, ineffective and, moreover, give governments the possibility of abusing those restrictions. Neither the principles of democracy, nor the legislation of Georgia enables us to classify protest rallies according to our likes or dislikes of the slogans used or the organizers of the rallies.

Are the people always right?

Modern democracy historically rests on the principles first formulated by English philosopher John Locke: people have a right to rebel against a tyrannical government. He thus justified the Glorious Revolution in England, and thereafter this provision was used to provide ideological grounds for the American, French and many other revolutions and overthrows (including to justify the overthrow of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia).

However, in that formulation John Locke went on to say that the use of such a radical method is only justified when the abuse of power becomes systemic. It is always possible to blame a government for something, but should we always seek revolution? Where does the line run? This is where critics of "the right to rebel" proceed from: who and how should one determine whether a legitimate government has sinned enough to justify its toppling by revolutionary means?

Should we use the amount of wrath accumulated among the people as a criterion too? But this wrath can be manipulated by ideological fanatics or political adventurers who, after gaining power, may well carry out way more ruthless repressions. Since the French Revolution, historical experience has taught us that leaders who have come to power by use of "the right of revolution" have gone on to commit, in the name of the people, crimes of no lesser severity than the "previous" government against which numerous fair or exaggerated claims had been accumulated. This, consequently, means that someone must protect us from extremists and adventurers acting in the name of the people. But, save for the same imperfect government, who else should do that?

Thus, we have two provisions: (1) people have the right to rebel against a repressive government and, in this case, to overstep the limits of the law, and (2) the government is obliged to protect society from those who, by using the dissatisfaction of the people – even if doing so fairly – endanger the basics of freedom and lawfulness.

Principles and context

How can we match these two principles? Since people, by nature, are lazy and like simplicity, many prefer to choose one principle and stick to it. Some will always side with the government and believe that any "riot" is organized by bad people upon the instructions of even worse people. Others, upon seeing angry people assembled on a square, instantly declare them as fighters for absolute truth and, no matter what these people do, condemn any use of force against them as unacceptable "violence." We have already mentioned the third option: the use of either the first theory or the second, depending on one's political requirements.

Unfortunately, the truth is not always simple. If you want a free and dignified life, you must acknowledge both provisions, but do so according to their specific context. Sometimes a government does not leave any room for free political action and society is left with no other option but to overstep the limits of the law. But what should we do when cynical or idealist leaders, having incited the masses, pose a threat to those democratic institutions which, though always imperfect, represent the only guarantee for a free and dignified life? In such a case, the government is obliged to use force to protect these institutions.

Any assessment is further complicated by the reality that the use of force by both a tyranny and a legitimate democratic government can look alike: in both cases one will see helmeted police officers, batons, tear gas, so on and so forth. However, in one case this action is correct, whilst in the other it is wrong. It is difficult, is it not?

Should we try to accurately codify, i.e. draw up clear rules, when and how to act in this dangerous borderline between the freedom and legality? Unfortunately, to do so would be impossible. No general rule can cover all specific circumstances and details.

Nevertheless, in most cases the democratic world, i.e. a notional unity of those people who each value and understand democratic principles, can come to agreement as to when a rebellion against a legitimate government must be supported and when the use of force against those who step over the limits of the law in expressing their position is justified.

In the former case, the logic is essentially the same as that of just war theory: disobedience to a legitimate government is justified only in exceptional, extreme cases – provided that all legal means have been used up or the law does not allow any free action at all. A government cannot be overthrown with the use of force merely because it is bad, corrupt, carries out selective justice, fails to eliminate poverty, et cetera. This is the path towards chaos and constant anarchy.

Ukraine and Georgia again

Let us use examples. The rigged elections of 2003 created an exceptional situation in Georgia. Undeniable evidence showed that citizens had voted against the government, but the government refused to go. In other words, the government left people with no other option but to force it out. The Shevardnadze government was corrupt and incapable before the 2003 elections, but that alone would not serve as justification for a revolutionary overthrow.

In Ukraine, by refusing to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, President Yanukovych unexpectedly deviated from the strategic path of development that the country had pursued for years and that the majority of the population supported. It was also obvious that the president took that unexpected and unipersonal decision either under pressure from a foreign state or in exchange for a bribe from it. This sparked an absolutely natural protest, which the Ukrainian government then opposed by adopting a new repressive legislation and thereby making it clear that its orientation towards Russia implied not only the introduction of a specific trade regime, but also the establishment of a Russian-style dictatorship. It was the effort to defend against such a scenario that proved to be the ultimate limit for the people gathered in the Maidan. After that, developments went beyond the constitutional framework, but it was the government that should be blamed for that. Here we have a similar case as with Georgia: the Ukrainian government was corrupt and ineffective even before these events, but only a series of extreme circumstances made the use of such radical methods justified.

The events of 26 May 2011 had nothing in common with this at all. A group cherishing extremist sentiments, which reflected the attitudes of only a small segment of society, held rallies for several consecutive days, which were (quite rightly) not impeded by anyone. At that time there was no exceptional reason behind the protest: perhaps it was just because spring is the season for protest rallies. However, by then deciding to thwart the events celebrating Georgian Independence Day and even refusing to temporarily vacate Rustaveli Avenue, that group not only challenged the government, but also the state. The clear link between this group and a force hostile to the country further loaded this attempt to thwart the celebrations with symbolic connotations.

After that, the Georgian government had a full legal right and, moreover, a moral obligation to clear the avenue from extremists. Had the police acted more professionally and with greater restraint while performing their duty, there would have been nothing to talk about.

Getting carried away with general, abstract categories ("people," "violence," "self-expression," et cetera) is a sign of undeveloped political discourse. The important thing is to link those principles that are focal for us with a specific context. Only after doing so can one engage in rational debate.


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