Tbilisi, 21 June 2019 (dpa/MIA) – The chairman of Georgia’s parliament quit his job on Friday after overnight protests calling for his resignation left 240 people injured in the former Soviet republic.
Irakli Kobakhidze had served in the post for nearly three years. The decision was taken after a leadership meeting of the governing Georgian Dream party.
Demonstrators in the capital Tbilisi had tried to storm parliament on Thursday night, demanding Kobakhidze’s resignation. The chairman was held responsible for a controversial visit this week by a delegation from neighbouring Russia.
In a statement, Georgian Dream said the protests had painted a “grave picture” of public anger. Kobakhidze’s resignation showed that the party maintained a “high standard of accountability” to the people.
The Russian delegation came to promote ties between countries where Orthodox Christianity is widely practised, but opposition leaders objected to a member of the Russian Duma chairing a meeting on religious and political issues in the parliament’s plenary.
Anti-Russian sentiment runs deep in Georgia, with political forces often sensitive to suggestions of Russia regaining influence.
Russia routed Georgian forces in a brief war in 2008 over two breakaway Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia recognizes them as independent states but maintains de-facto control.
“Russia is our enemy and occupant,” Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said amid the protests, calling for the restoration of peace and suggesting that instability actually benefits Russia.
“The breakdown of our country and society, the internal confrontation does not help anyone else but Russia. This is its most well-known weapon,” Zourabichvili said in a statement on her Facebook page.
More than 100 people remained hospitalized on Friday morning, state television network First Channel reported. “In most cases there was trauma, bruising and eye injuries,” Deputy Health Minister Zaza Bokhua was quoted as saying.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the Russian delegation was unharmed.
Georgian state television showed hundreds of people standing in front of parliament, many clearing away police barriers.
The Interior Ministry threatened a tough crackdown on the protests. Media reports said police used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s spokesman condemned the demonstrations as a “Russophobic provocation,” according to comments carried by Russian state news agency TASS.
“Such manifestations of Russophobia cause us serious concern. Let’s not forget that Georgia is a country that quite a large number of Russian tourists visit,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying.
Regional expert Diyar Autal described the incident as a “public relations disaster” for Georgia’s government, with the leading Georgian Dream party facing a possible loss of support.
“In Georgia people widely see Russia as a country that occupies 20 percent of the Georgian territory,” said Autal, an associate at the Harvard Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
Nevertheless, “over a million Russian tourists visited Georgia last year,” Autal told dpa. “Tourism is Georgia’s key industry.”
Russia’s Federal Agency for Tourism said it did not see the protests as a reason to advise against travel to Georgia.