Protests against Russian influence that resulted in Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze’s resignation Friday continued into Monday in Georgia, where thousands gathered to demand the resignation of multiple senior public officials.
Protests began last Thursday in the wake of a visit to the Georgian Parliament by Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov. Gavrilov infuriated Georgians by sitting in Kobakhidze’s seat, one specially reserved for the head of the Georgian Parliament, and addressing an Orthodox congregation in Russian. Unlike the case in neighboring Ukraine, which is still home to significant anti-Russian sentiment, Georgian is not a Slavic language, making the Russian display even more offensive to those who objected.
Tbilisi police responded violently to the protesters, arresting hundreds and triggering much wider demands for the resignations of all those involved in repressive violence.
Georgia remains technically occupied by Russian forces since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. Russia remains present in both, though it has only attempted to annex South Ossetia and treats Abkhazia as a sovereign nation. That Gavrilov’s presence in a position of authority in Parliament triggered such widespread anger is a testament to how aware Georgians are of this occupation over a decade later – and the nearby occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported Monday that a crowd of thousands surrounded the parliament building again that night in response to the head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, announcing new parliamentary elections in a yaer and the replacement of the current majority vote system with proportional voting, which the protesters had demanded, presumably to strengthened weaker anti-Russia parties. Ivanishvili said in his announcement that the new system would guarantee that “all the existing political actors will be represented.”
The proportional voting system was one of four concrete demands from the protesters. The other three are Kobakhidze’s resignation for allowing Gavrilov’s transgression, which they received, and two others: the release of imprisoned protesters, and the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who ordered the use of violence against protesters.
More than 100 protesters remain “political prisoners,” according to United National Movement (UNM) leader Grigol Vashadze.
Kobakhidze lasted only one day of protests, but a violent one. According to the Associated Press (AP) and the TASS Russian news service police injured 240 people on Thursday night and arrested over 300. Police used tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets in an attempt to disrupt the protests, leading organizers to list even more demands in the name of justice of those assembled.
“More than 100 people were still in the hospital, and two people lost eyes because of the rubber bullets, according to Giorgi Kordzakhiya, director of Tbilisi’s New Hospital,” the AP reported. Protesters gathering on Friday wore eye patches in honor of those who lost their eyes.
The protesters made clear their objection to Russian government leaders in their country. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) listed some of the slogans on protest posters insulting Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading, “Russia is an Occupier.” Some of the eye patches worn were adorned with more anti-Russian messages. Many waved Georgian flags.
President Salome Zurabishvili has escaped most of the protesters’ ire. Once a member of the UNM coalition founded by former President Mikheil Saakashvili – who served during Putin’s 2008 invasion – Zurabishvili is the head of her own Way of Georgia Party and has stepped into the dispute on the protesters’ side.
“Russia is our enemy and occupier. The fifth column it manages may be more dangerous than open aggression,” Zurabishvili wrote on Facebook on Friday. “Only Russia benefits from a split in the country and society and internal confrontation, and it’s the most powerful weapon today.”
Saakashvili himself, once the loudest anti-Putin voice in Europe, has not weighed in on the matter at press time. The former president lost his Georgian citizenship upon accepting an invitation to become the governor of Odessa, Ukraine, in 2015. After accusing President Petro Poroshenko of corruption, Saakashvili lost his Ukrainian citizenship, leaving him stateless. He received his citizenship again in May thanks to the election of outsider President Volodymyr Zelensky and is attempting, so far unsuccessfully, to run for office there again.
The Russian government has responded to the outpouring of disgust against it by claiming that the protesters are seeking to illegally usurp power.
“Our common view is that there’s an obvious attempt in Georgia right now to stage a coup d’etat and that extremist forces are trying to seize power,” Gavrilov said of the protests. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he was “sad” to read Zurabishvili’s statements and accused her of being “extremely unprofessional.” Putin banned Russian flights into Georgia and urged Russians not to travel there.
“Georgia is one of the safest countries in Europe and when we speak about Tbilisi, it is the safest city in entire Europe. Tourists know it very well,” Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze said on Monday. “Georgia is a safe country for Russian tourists and to all guests coming here.”