July 23, 2019 / 2:32 PM / a month ago

Economist's double life on the frontline of Georgia's street protests

TBILISI (Reuters) - Shota Dighmelashvili leads a double life.

Economist and leader of a protest Shota Dighmelashvili delivers a speech during a rally near the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

By day, the 33-year-old Georgian economist edits a business magazine, but after work he stands on a stage outside parliament in front of hundreds of grassroots protesters to demand political change.

“I think I’m now doing one of the most important things in my life,” he said on the steps to the legislature, dressed in jeans and a camouflage jacket and awaiting his turn to take the microphone.

The demonstrations, held daily for the past month and drawing thousands at their peak, have presented Georgia’s government with the biggest domestic challenge to its authority in years.

They erupted a month ago after a Russian lawmaker was allowed to address parliament his native language, touching a nerve in a country that Russia briefly invaded 11 years ago.

Dighmelashvili and many Georgians like him believe the government is in a subservient relationship with Moscow and view the mainstream opposition, a party led by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, as just another part of a discredited establishment.

He joined the movement he now addresses as a leader after police broke up the first demonstration against the lawmaker’s speech on June 20 with tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring hundreds. There have been no similar clashes since.

Dighmelashvili, who attended, was unhurt, but says his parents now worry when he takes to the stage to comment on current affairs and press for the resignation of the interior minister, who protesters blame for the initial violence.

“I’ve felt I was a participant in a historical process and bear historical responsibility, and for this you need to take the risk,” he said.

“I’ve been always a politically active person... I founded a non-governmental organization monitoring cases of state embezzlement.”

An executive editor of the Georgian edition of Forbes magazine, he shares an apartment in Tbilisi with girlfriend Nata. A fan of electronic music, he was a regular at night clubs but gave that up when their son Neo was born 20 months ago.

Now he leaves work around 7 p.m. each day and, with his boss’ blessing, heads for parliament.

The protests were his first encounter with big politics, and he and fellow leaders have had to fend off mainstream opposition politicians who wanted to co-opt their grassroots movement.

“I realized that leading a protest is often a battle for the microphone,” he said, adding that he hoped the movement’s approach to pressing for change would inspire others.

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“People will believe that it is possible to achieve political results through civic engagement without expecting any reward.”

Dighmelashvili’s focus for now is on forcing Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia to quit.

“I have zero political ambition.... (So) I will go home as soon as this demand is fulfilled,” he said.

Editing by Christian Lowe and John Stonestreet

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