Protesters enraged by the visit of a Russian legislator attempted to storm Georgia’s parliament building, prompting riot police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets with more than 200 people hurt in clashes.
The scenes in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, flared up suddenly on Thursday night amid widespread public anger over the visit by Sergey Gavrilov, who addressed an assembly of MPs from Orthodox Christian countries from the seat of the speaker.
The Russian MP’s presence in fiercely pro-Western Georgia’s parliament prompted outrage in the ex-Soviet nation, which in 2008 fought and lost a brief but bloody war with Moscow over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Demonstrating against Gavrilov’s visit, about 10,000 protesters gathered outside parliament. Some attending the rally tried to break through riot police cordons to enter the building’s courtyard.
They were pushed back by police but some continued surging forward. In response, authorities fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannon at the crowd, prompting most protesters to disperse.
More than 240 people were injured and half of them are still in the hospital, health official Zaza Bokhua said on Friday.
President Salome Zurabishvili said she was cutting short her trip to Belarus to return to Tbilisi to deal with the crisis.
Earlier, tens of thousands also rallied in the streets of central Tbilisi, demanding speaker Irakli Kobakhidze step down after Gavrilov’s address to an annual meeting of the Inter-parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO) – a forum of lawmakers from predominantly Orthodox countries.
On Friday, Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from Tbilisi, said that Kobakhidze resigned in a statement read out by Tbilisi’s Mayor Kakha Kaladze, who is also a secretary general of the ruling party.
He also said that more than a hundred protesters were still in hospital.
“Two people have lost eye-sight in at least one eye by being hit by projectiles police had fired at the protesters, including tear gas and plastic bullets,” he said.
Russia accused Georgian opposition forces on Friday of trying to prevent ties between the countries improving, the TASS news agency reported.
The foreign ministry said “radical” forces had deliberately organised protests.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Moscow, said the events were followed in Moscow very closely.
“The main line is that it was all pre-planned for two reasons, according to people here in Russia: to make sure that the ties between Russia and Georgia will not improve as it has been over the last two years, and also the other reason is the power struggle [within Georgia],” she said.
She also said that Russia’s state media called the protests a coup attempt led by former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
“The last thing that Russia wants is a very strong anti-Russian power in Georgia. So if the coup they are describing were to succeed, the ties with Russia would be worsening and also the chances of Georgia becoming a member of NATO would be increasing, that’s something that Russia is very scared of,” Vaessen said.
Reacting to the unrest, Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze said the situation outside the parliament had been “provoked by opposition forces”.
Bakhtadze, a member of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, said in a statement the police “never used and is not going to use rubber bullets or gas against peaceful protesters”.
Opposition MPs, some of whom accuse the Georgian Dream party of being insufficiently firm in confronting Moscow, called for protests in response to Gavrilov’s appearance in the assembly. They also demanded the parliamentary speaker, interior minister, and state security service chief all resign over the incident.
“Georgian Dream has brought the Russian occupiers in and let them sit in the speaker’s chair,” Elene Khoshtaria, an opposition member of parliament, said. “That was a slap in the face to recent Georgian history.”
Gavrilov has supported calls for independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and is a supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a figure despised by many Georgians.
Reacting to Gavrilov’s appearance in the country’s assembly, President Zurabishvili called Russia “an enemy and occupier” whose fifth column, she suggested, was behind violent unrest.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said in a statement that Moscow was outraged by the actions of what he called radical Georgian political forces, whom he accused of propagating anti-Russian sentiment.
Russian influence in Georgia is a politically sensitive subject. The two countries have not had diplomatic ties since 2008 and have long been at loggerheads over Tbilisi’s bid to join the European Union and NATO with the spiralling confrontation culminating in the August 2008 war.
During the conflict, the Russian army swept into Georgia – bombing targets and occupying large swathes of territory – after Tbilisi launched a large-scale military operation against South Ossetian separatist forces who had been shelling Georgian villages.
In just five days, Russia defeated Georgia’s small military and the hostilities ended with a ceasefire.
After the war, which claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers and civilians from both sides, Moscow recognised South Ossetia and another separatist enclave, Abkhazia, as independent states where it then stationed permanent military bases.
Tbilisi and its Western allies have denounced Russia’s actions as an “illegal military occupation”.
The two regions constitute 20 percent of the country’s territory.