Georgia and Russia are blaming each other for a series of overnight clashes that erupted in Tbilisi after a visiting Russian lawmaker, Sergei Gavrilov, addressed Georgia’s parliament from the speaker’s chair, outraging protesters gathered outside the building who breached police cordons and raided the chamber.
Police tried to quell the melee, but as news of Gavrilov’s action spread Thursday, thousands flooded surrounding streets to call for the speaker’s and interior minister’s resignations and early parliamentary elections.
By midnight, officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, sparking violent unrest that flared into the early morning hours of Friday, sending an estimated 240 demonstrators, journalists and police officers to the hospital.
Some protesters suffered up to 10 rubber-bullet wounds to their legs and upper bodies, and footage from different TV broadcasters show that the bullets were fired directly at people rather than at the ground per crowd-dispersal protocol.
Radio Tavisupleba footage showed special forces workers violently beating individuals on the ground.
Resignations, castigations, bad blood
Georgian parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze and the deputy parliamentarian who planned the event to which Gavrilov’s Russian delegation had been invited — a session of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, a group that seeks closer ties between Christian Orthodox lawmakers — both resigned by morning.
Later, a coalition of opposition parties was still calling for Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s resignation over the brutal police response and the start of talks on early parliamentary elections. They are also demanding the release of all demonstrators detained overnight.
Gavrilov’s Russian language speech from the Georgian speaker’s platform triggered an angry response because Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 over the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which Russia recognizes as independent states. Russian soldiers, whom the Kremlin calls peacekeepers, remain in both republics.
The two countries broke off diplomatic relations after the war but steps have been taken in recent years to restore ties. Animosity toward Russia is still strong, however, because of the Kremlin’s support of the two separatist governments.
Many Georgians regard the Russians as occupiers and say the current government is too weak in dealing with Moscow.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili called Russia “an enemy and occupier” and suggested Moscow had helped trigger the protests, while the Kremlin on Friday blamed radical Georgian politicians for what it called “an anti-Russian provocation.”
“Russia is our enemy and occupier. The fifth column it manages may be more dangerous than open aggression,” Zurabishvili posted on her Facebook page.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the safety of Gavrilov and other members of the Russian delegation had been endangered.
“Everything that happened yesterday in Georgia is nothing other than an anti-Russian provocation,” said Peskov.
Georgian opposition lawmaker Elene Khoshtaria called the entire event “a big shame.”
“The Georgian government has made it possible to see Russian occupants, the enemy of this country, in the chair of the chairman of parliament,” she said. “This is not acceptable for the Georgian public.”
The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi said the U.S. “recognizes the hurt that many people feel today. We urge all sides to remain calm, show restraint and act within the framework of the constitution at all times.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Ken Yalowitz told VOA’s Georgian service that he was still grappling with Gavrilov’s intentions in the parliamentary chamber.
The Georgia-Russian relationship “is a very difficult one, obviously, because of the occupation,” he said. “If this man, Gavrilov, was coming to try to improve dialogue, you know, for peaceful purposes, that’s one thing. But if his intention was to come and — it sounds like it may have been aimed at stirring up tensions or making difficulties, and if that’s what his purpose was, then I can certainly understand why Georgians you would be very upset by this.”
“If a Georgian walked into the Russian Duma and did the same thing, I’m sure that that there would be loud protest,” he said. “I would just caution all sides against using violent tactics and call on the government to use restraint. If these people are simply demonstrating peacefully, they have every right to do that without being harassed.”
“Watching the events tonight in Tbilisi, my heart goes out to those who are standing up for Georgia’s freedom and independence,” said Ian Kelly, U.S. ambassador to Georgia from September 17, 2015, to March 2018. “Georgians must support each other, just as your friends support you. Now is the time for dialogue, not violence.”
On Friday, protesters returned to the streets, demanding that the interior minister step down over the brutal police response.
Georgia’s first LGBT+ pride march, which had been scheduled for Saturday, was called off because of the ongoing situation.