Georgia accuses Russia over unrest as political crisis brews
June 21 2019 06:54 PM
A riot policeman fires a tear gas canister towards protesters during a rally against a Russian lawma
A riot policeman fires a tear gas canister towards protesters during a rally against a Russian lawmaker's visit in Tbilisi, Georgia

Reuters/Tbilisi/Moscow

* Protests erupt in ex-Soviet Georgia
* Crowds angered by visit of Russian lawmaker
* Tensions still raw over 2008 war with Moscow
* Opposition seeks to press wider demands

Georgia and Russia traded blame on Friday for an outbreak of unrest in Tbilisi sparked by the visit of a Russian lawmaker as opposition parties tried to capitalise on public anger over the incident to press wider political demands.
Violence flared in the Georgian capital late on Thursday, where police used tear gas and rubber bullets to stop angry crowds storming parliament.
Hundreds of people, both protesters and police officers, were injured, some seriously, as demonstrators pushed against lines of riot police, threw bottles and stones, and grabbed shields, drawing a tough response.
Though ostensibly about how Georgia handles relations with Russia, with whom it fought and lost a brief war in 2008, opposition parties are seeking to seize the moment to press much wider and unrelated demands and have called on people to take to the streets again on Friday evening at 1500 GMT.
The speaker of parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, resigned earlier on Friday, satisfying one of the protesters' demands.
A coalition of opposition parties later demanded the interior minister's resignation as well, the release of protesters detained the previous night, and talks on holding an early parliamentary election.
Tamar Kordzaia, leader of the opposition Republican Party, said protests would continue to press their demands.
Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi are running high.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili called Russia "an enemy and occupier" and suggested Moscow had helped trigger the protests, while the Kremlin on Friday blamed radical Georgian politicians for what it called "an anti-Russian provocation".
"Russia is our enemy and occupier. The fifth column it manages may be more dangerous than open aggression," Zurabishvili posted on her Facebook page.
Russian influence in Georgia remains a politically sensitive subject, with the opposition accusing the ruling Georgian Dream party - which backed Zurabishvili for the presidency late last year - of being too meek when it comes to confronting Moscow.
The small south Caucasus nation, a U.S. ally, fought and lost a short war against Moscow in 2008. The two countries have not had diplomatic ties since, and Russia went on to recognise the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russian troops are now garrisoned.

The crowds were angry about the visit of a Russian delegation led by Sergei Gavrilov, a member of Russia's lower house of parliament, who was taking part in an event designed to foster relations between Orthodox Christian lawmakers.
Gavrilov addressed delegates in his native Russian from the Georgian parliamentary speaker's seat, angering some Georgian politicians and citizens who want Russia kept at arm's length.
Gavrilov told a Moscow news conference on Friday he believed the protests had been pre-planned.
"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," he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the safety of Gavrilov and other members of the Russian delegation had been endangered.
"Everything that happened yesterday in Georgia is nothing other than an anti-Russian provocation," said Peskov.
President Vladimir Putin said he wanted Russian tourists visiting Georgia to be warned of the potential risks there.
Georgia, crisscrossed by energy pipelines, hopes one day to join the European Union and NATO, an ambition which has infuriated Moscow, the country's former Soviet overlord.



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