Protests in Tbilisi How a Russian lawmaker’s perceived arrogance provoked violent clashes outside Georgia’s Parliament building
In Tbilisi late on June 20, several thousand people joined a protest at Georgia's Parliament building. As many as 10,000 people filled the square outside the legislature. Activists protested against the “Russian occupation” of Georgia, demanding the resignation of Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, as well as the heads of Georgia’s Interior Ministry and State Security Service. After an hour, when their demands were not met, demonstrators started storming the Parliament building.
The demonstration was a response to a speech by State Duma deputy Sergey Gavrilov at Georgia’s Parliament. On June 20, the legislature hosted a session of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy. Gavrilov is the president of this organization. After the meeting began, the Russian lawmaker sat in the Parliament speaker’s chair and addressed the audience in Russian. This incident outraged deputies from Georgia’s “United National Movement” and “Movement for Liberty - European Georgia.” The assembly’s meeting was disrupted, and Gavrilov fled the building under police escort. The entire Russian delegation soon left Georgia altogether.
Sergey Gavrilov has advocated the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions in Georgia recognized by Moscow. According to the Georgian opposition, but denied by Gavrilov, he fought in Abkhazia during the Abkhaz–Georgian conflict in 1992 and 1993. Bidzina Ivanishvili, billionaire and chairman of the political party “Georgian Dream,” Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, and Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze have publicly apologized for the fact that “a representative of the occupier-country, however briefly, occupied the seat of the Georgian Parliament’s speaker.”
Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disperse the protesters. Demonstrators, in turn, threw bottles at police and grabbed some of their shields. Dozens of people were injured in the clashes. At the time of this writing, Georgia’s Health Ministry reported that 52 people were hurt in the violence, including 38 police officers.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has expressed his support for the protesters. Saakashvili called on police officers to disobey their orders and “go over to the side of the people.” Currently on a visit to Minsk, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili condemned Saakashvili’s remarks, saying, “It's totally unacceptable for a citizen of another country [Saakashvili is now a Ukrainian citizen] to call, from abroad, on the police to disobey orders.”
Georgian officials have called on protesters to sit down for talks. Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia has acknowledged that demonstrators “have certain grounds for a just protest,” but he’s also stressed that activists guilty of attacking police officers will be punished. Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, who also called the protest “just,” has accused the opposition of “trying to pull Georgia from the legal framework that was created once and for all in this country.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has condemned the actions of “Georgia’s radical political forces.” Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told reporters that Moscow is outraged at the collapse of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy session. “We express our indignation at the actions of representatives of Georgia’s radical political forces, who took an important international forum that unites the world’s Orthodox states and used it to splash out their own anti-Russian sentiment,” Karasin said. American diplomats, meanwhile, called on both protesters and law enforcement to “remain calm, exercise restraint, and act only within the framework of the Constitution.”