A visit by Russian parliamentarians to Georgia has sparked mass protests, injuring hundreds. Relations between the countries have been tense since before the 2008 war — and now old wounds are being reopened.
Thousands of demonstrators stormed the Parliament in Tbilisi as Russian lawmakers visited Georgia's capital on Thursday. Police met the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. At least 240 people were injured. Images of bloody faces aired on televisions around the world. President Salome Zurabishvili and Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze were forced to cut foreign visits short to return home.
The unrest continued on Friday, putting Georgia's tense relationship with Russia front and center once again.
The visit by the Russian parliamentarians was unusual. Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with the Kremlin in the wake of the August 2008 war between the countries. Political contact has been extremely rare since then.
The war resulted in the secession of the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which were aided by Russia.
Georgia has sought membership in the European Union and NATO — much to the Kremlin's chagrin. However, it wasn't until President Mikheil Saakashvili stepped down in 2013 after losing his bid for reelection that the heat aimed at Russia by Georgia's government cooled, leading to a cautious rapprochement through economic cooperation. That shift allowed Georgia to export fruit and vegetables to Russia and saw an increase in tourism between the countries.
Now, Russia's efforts to deepen its influence in religion and politics in Georgia look to be considerably less welcome.
Russia sent a delegation of lawmakers to Tbilisi to participate in the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, a meeting of mainly Orthodox Christian countries. The IAO has existed since the early 1990s. The current chairman is Sergei Gavrilov, a representative in Russia's Duma and a member of the Communist Party.
An 'anti-Russia provocation'?
Before the delegation's arrival, Georgian opposition forces protested the fact that Gavrilov has made several visits to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia recognizes both as independent states and has even integrated their troops into the national army.
The meeting of the Orthodox politicians was held in the assembly hall of Georgia's Parliament. When Gavrilov seated himself in the chair belonging to Irakli Kobakhidze, the leader of the Parliament, it sparked immediate protest from opposition politicians, who quickly mobilized supporters on the streets.
Gavrilov and his colleagues were forced to flee the country. Speaking in Moscow on Friday, they referred to the incident as an "anti-Russia provocation."
Georgia's opposition leaders intend to keep up the protests and have called for the resignations of the interior minister and the head of the intelligence services, in addition to Kobakhidze, who stepped down on Friday. The parliamentarian who organized the event also resigned.
Saakashvili fuels protests
Stefan Meister, who leads the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank with ties to Germany's Greens, in South Caucasus, told DW that there are foreign and domestic reasons for the protests. Meister said the demonstrations showed just how much Russia has polarized society: "This was about using the Orthodox Church to exert influence over Georgia." The church has traditionally refrained from engaging in politics.
Meister said the incident had even more to do with the conflict between the ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition forces aligned with former President Saakashvili. The Movement of New Forces, Saakashvili's party, recently lost in both the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Saakashvili, who was convicted of abuse of office, has had his citizenship revoked. The 51-year-old now lives in exile in Ukraine and has encouraged the protests via social media. He called the events in Georgia a "revolt" when speaking with DW in Kyiv, and predicted the downfall of the government.
Meister said the domestic political conflict would only worsen in the run-up to Georgia's 2020 parliamentary elections.