The leader of Georgia‘s ruling party has announced a sweeping set of electoral reforms after four days of protests convulsed the capital, Tbilisi.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder and leader of the Georgian Dream party, said in a statement on Monday that the country’s next parliamentary election – scheduled for 2020 – will be based entirely on a proportional system, fulfilling a key demand of anti-government protesters.
In his first public appearance since the political crisis erupted, Ivanishvili also announced that the threshold of five percent of the vote for parties to be represented would be dropped.
“We are seeing today that the society wants changes,” Ivanishvili said. “Our initiative opens the way for large-scale political changes.”
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Tbilisi since Thursday, when demonstrators 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 at those rallying.
More than 200 people were injured during the clashes and more than 300 demonstrators were arrested, according to officials.
The protest reflected simmering anger against Russia, which routed Georgia in a 2008 war and has maintained a military presence in Georgia’s two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Subsequent rallies were held outside parliament over recent days, with protesters calling for the release of those held and the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, whom they blame for the violent dispersal of Thursday’s demonstration.
It was unclear whether the announcement would placate the protesters, who were also demanding a snap election.
On Monday afternoon, anti-government demonstrators drove dozens of cars around Tbilisi’s central district, honking in protest before arriving at the interior ministry building to demand Gakharia’s resignation.
Another mass street demonstration was planned for the evening.
In a sign of wider political dissatisfaction, the movement has also called for amendments to Georgia’s electoral law to have legislators chosen fully proportionally rather than the current mix of party-list and single-mandate representatives.
Opposition parties argue the single-mandate races unfairly favour the ruling party and consider Ivanishvili – Georgia’s richest man after making a fortune in Russia – to be a conduit of Moscow’s influence.
On Monday, Ivanishvili said an investigation must determine those responsible for last week’s violence.
Moscow, meanwhile, responded to the protests by ordering a ban on Russian flights to Georgia, effective as of July 8.
Russia’s transportation ministry also banned Georgian airlines from flying to Russia, citing their debts and safety issues.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Monday that the flight ban reflected concerns about the safety of Russian travelers amid what he described as “Russophobic hysteria” in Georgia. He told reporters that the ban could be lifted after the current tensions abate.
Russian influence in Georgia is an extremely politically sensitive topic. The two countries have had no formal diplomatic ties since 2008, and have long been at odds over Tbilisi’s bid to join the European Union and NATO.
The 2008 war, which came after spiralling confrontations between the two countries, saw Russian forces sweep into former-Soviet Georgia – bombing targets and occupying large swaths 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. Combined, the two regions constitute some 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.
Tbilisi and its Western allies have denounced Russia’s actions as an “illegal military occupation”.