Police in Georgia used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to stop protesters storming the country’s parliament early on Friday, leaving dozens requiring medical treatment. Thirty-nine police officers and 30 civilians had been treated in hospital for injuries after the clashes, with the number likely to rise, said David Sergeenko, an adviser to the prime minister.
Thousands had rallied through the night outside the building in the centre of the capital, Tbilisi, after a Russian MP was allowed to chair a session of parliament on Thursday.
The outcry began after Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov took the chair’s seat during an assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries being held in Tbilisi. As news of Gavrilov’s appearance began to circulate, a crowd gathered outside parliament, and by late evening, about 10,000 people were massed outside the building, waving Georgian flags, chanting and later on, attempting to breach the lines of riot police and storm the building.
Riot shields and body armour seized from police were passed through the crowds and at one point an injured policeman was dragged to an ambulance by protesters.
Georgia and Russia fought a war in 2008, after which Russia recognised two breakaway Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent states. Georgia and most of the international community considers the territories de facto occupied by Russia.
The appearance of a Russian MP who has backed independence for the two territories, sitting in the seat of the parliamentary chair and speaking in Russian, caused outrage in Georgia. Some protesters carried abusive signs about Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, former prime minister and leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said in a statement that he “fully shares the sincere outrage of the Georgian citizens”.
Former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who now has Ukrainian citizenship and faces criminal charges in Georgia, called on police to join with the protesters. Saakashvili, who has embarked on a political career in Ukraine, has said the Georgian accusations against him are political revenge and has accused Ivanishvili, who made his billions in Russia, of allowing increasing Kremlin influence in Georgia.
The protests come after a year of increasingly polarised politics in Georgia, with frustrations over the ruling Georgian Dream party mounting, and the incident with the Russian MP merely proving the final straw.
Police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd at regular intervals for hours on end, sending people fleeing to adjacent streets, only to return. Later, in the early hours of Friday, they used rubber bullets and water cannon. By 3am local time, hundreds of police had cordoned off the area around parliament, but a crowd of a few thousand protesters remained, lobbing projectiles and in one case smashing the windows of a police car.
The US embassy in Tbilisi in a statement: “We understand the frustrations that many people are feeling today, and we call on all sides to remain calm, exercise restraint, and act only within the framework of the constitution.”
Russian state Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin accused Georgia of failing to uphold the norms of international conventions. “They could neither provide security as the event, nor protect the Russian delegation from attacks and threats,” he told the Russian news agency Inter-fax.