Georgia's 'Ordinary Man' Leads Revolt Against Government After Son's Death

When Zaza Saralidze met on June 4 with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikshvili, the leader of the current wave of protests looked and sounded like a political figurehead ready to push Georgia in a new direction. Just don't tell him that.

Saralidze has vaulted to the forefront of a wave of discontent among ordinary Georgians who are fed up with what they see as a justice system corrupted by the elites for the elites.

In Saralidze's case, it was the killing of his son and what he and thousands of others see as the subsequent whitewashing of the event that has turned the streets of the capital into a sea of protesters.

"Politics means nothing to me. I'm an ordinary man, like you. I'm not fighting for any political party," Saralidze said at the outset of the protests. "All I'm demanding is truth and justice."

While many have complained that Georgia's justice system is failing all but a few of the country's 3.7 million inhabitants, it hit home for Saralidze in December 2017.

That's when a group of 11th graders started bullying some ninth graders at a downtown public school in Tbilisi. Push came to shove and before long, a street brawl turned deadly when the younger schoolkids called older friends and relatives to help them.

By the time the two sides were separated, Davit Saralidze and another 16-year-old, Levan Dadunashvili, lay in pools of blood with multiple stab wounds.

The killings immediately sparked outrage in the tony Vere neighborhood of Tbilisi where the fight took place.

Fears grew that the lawless conditions of the post-Soviet 1990s were gaining traction as politicians served themselves and their sponsors instead of the community at large. The killings also raised concerns that Georgian society as a whole was eroding.

Saralidze, a blue-collar worker whose wife is a migrant worker in Western Europe, revolted when the Tbilisi City Court handed down a prison sentence of nine years for attempted murder in his son's case.

Saralidze, who is not backed by any political party, has insisted that people other than the two suspects who were put on trial were responsible for his son's death and escaped punishment because their relatives worked in the prosecutor's office.

He also questions how a suspect can be charged with only attempted murder when the victim died because of the attack.

"Just because I am an ordinary man and not a member of the elite, they have doomed me to injustice! So I am asking you, ordinary people like me, to please come stand by my side. Justice should be restored!" Saralidze said in a Facebook post as he urged Georgians to rally with him against the government, which he has urged to resign.

Chief prosecutor Irakli Shotadze stepped down on May 31 over the case.

Dadunashvili's family has been more accepting of the 10-year sentence an unidentified teen was handed for murder in the death of their son.

Protests led by Saralidze come amid waning trust in government institutions and rising dissatisfaction with the economic and social conditions of the South Caucasus nation, which is hoping to forge greater political and economic ties with the European Union and other Western structures.

Subway operators in Tbilisi struck on June 4 over wages, while miners have been demanding a halt in coal-mining operations, saying the government must improve safety and labor conditions in the industry after a slew of deaths.

Demonstrations in sympathy with Saralidze have also occurred elsewhere in the country, including the town of Gori, where inscriptions were scrawled on central streets and underground crossings saying, "The killer is in the street" and "Where is justice?"