Dialogue or Oppression?

The student movement Auditoria #115 demands large-scale reforms of the educational system in Georgia. A protest march and the occupation of the university was followed by a meeting with Prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Although the politician promised a joint work on a new law on education, there are reports about intimidations of activists by state authorities.

A Sunday afternoon mid-April in Tbilisi: the campus of the Tbilisi State University (TSU) is much more crowded than on a usual Sunday. Furthermore the journalists are noticeable, who sneak full of expectation through the floors of the university building or sit next to their cameras, which are gazing into empty space. Some minutes ago prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili met with a student assembly in the room with the number 115. The politician devoted one hour and a half to listen to the problems of the students and to present some possible solutions. As movement Auditoria #115 the day before they marched to the house of government and occupied parts of the university.

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Secret service members in public institutions

It is the continuation of a protest, that started already in February and opposed against corrupted structures and the security personnel. “The student self-government embezzled 25.000 Lari. Besides for the last ten years it have been under heavy influence of state security services and the government”, says Otto Kobakhidze. He is studying psychology and is one of the student activists. The members of the secret service, so-called ODRs, can be found in many administrations and institutions. Transparency International calls them a legacy of the Soviet era. In march the main demands of Auditoria #115 were the disbanding of the student self-government and the replacement of the university security personnel. Besides the protests aimed against one candidate for the president of the TSU, who was also a member of the controversial student body. Furthermore when some students, who raised critics towards the student self-government, got beaten up in 2011 this candidate was supposed to protect the perpetrators in his former role as vice-president of the university. In march the students carried out an occupation of some parts of the TSU, which lasted for eight days. “The police were outside and we were inside. But when the minister of education promised a restructuring of the student self-government, we stopped the occupation”, reports Kobakhidze. There were high expectations among the protesters. But the new draft, which was published in the mid of April, revealed that only names were changed, but that the entire structure remained. The students felt betrayed and took up their protest again.

Universities isolated from the rest of the country

Meanwhile it is not only about concerns of the TSU. “We demand, that education becomes a priority of our country. We don’t generate new knowledge, but we are repeating old knowledge over and over again. And this is not contemporary, but partly racist, sexist and homophobic”, says Kobakhidze. As an example he mentioned a conference about gender issues and LGBTI rights, which was about to take place at the TSU. Due to the announcement of some right-wing groups to prevent this event by any means and the lacking promise of the university administration to provide protection, the organisers moved to another place. “That is a clear example how certain knowledge can’t be spread and certain topics can’t be discussed in the university, because of dozens of extremist people”, resumes Kobakhidze.

Auditoria #115 considers the Georgian university as isolated from the rest of the country. There would be no social exchange and there would be no contribution to the social development as well. Furthermore for many young people it would be impossible to attend the university due to financial reasons. Students of the TSU pay 2250 Lari each year. Facing a monthly average salary of 500-700 Lari (depending of the source), this is a big amount of money. Prime Minister Kvirikashvili suggested during his meeting with Auditoria #115 to spend a bigger percentage of the GDP on education. In a press release he welcomed the active involvement of Auditoria #115 in the process of education reform. According to Kvirikashvili the dialogue process will be transparent and continue in the future. He expressed both, his optimism that the dialogue will contribute to an increasing quality of the legislation and his will to get personally involved.

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Intimidation of activists

The resulting expectant atmosphere in the university, which was mixed with careful optimism, vanished meanwhile. Reports about attempts of intimidations by state authorities made some of the student protesters feel insecure. Some activists would be under surveillance of secret service and some parents of members of Auditoria #115 were visited at home by state authorities and threatened with loosing their jobs or even imprisonment, if their children will keep up the protest. The student Natia Karchiladze reports in a video, which was published on Facebook by an independent media group, that her father, who works in a governmental department, was invited to a talk with his superior. “His boss said to him, that they gave him a job and his daughter would fight against them. If he says we would fight against “them”, he is actually talking about our demand, concerning the removal of the ODRs”, says the young woman. The superior demented that this talk ever happened. “I am not the only one, who is concerned by that. 10-15 people are facing the same problem. But they don’t talk about it in public, because their families were threatened with job loss or imprisonment,” says Karchiladze.

„Prime Minister Kvirikashvili promised to meet with representatives of Auditoria #115 and lawyers to work on a new law on education“, reports Guji Gogoberishvili. The young activist got arrested by the police, when he sprayed the logo of the movement on the pavement in front of the university. “They kept me for one night and asked me who forced me to do this and how much money I received for doing this. But they didn’t treat me bad”, says Gogoberishvili.

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EU-Delegation: „We have a dialogue with the government“

A spokesperson of the German Foreign Ministry says on enquiry: “The German embassy is following the student protests and the societal and political reactions to it very carefully”. The EU-Delegation to Georgia commented in a similar way, saying that they are familiar with the student’s demands. Regarding the allegations of intimidations of activists and their families by state authorities a EU spokesperson says: “We have a dialogue framework with the government within which issues related to in particular human rights are addressed. We continued to use the existing framework in the case of the student’s protest.”

Meanwhile Auditoria #115 expressed its solidarity not only with the LGBTI-community in the framework of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, but also with demonstrating journalists, who are demanding a raise of their salary. Facing the strengthening of the movement and the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2016 it will get probably more attention this time.

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