The speaker of Georgia’s parliament has stepped down in the aftermath of violent clashes that left more than 200 people injured, sparked by the appearance of a Russian politician in parliament.
Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who is out of the country on an official visit, has handed in his resignation, Kakha Kaladze, one of the leaders of the ruling Georgian Dream party, told reporters.
The speaker’s dismissal was one of the protesters’ demands.
The deputy health minister said at least 240 people were injured in a night of clashes in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Thursday.
Riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and unleashed water cannons on protesters outside Georgia’s parliament building.
More than 100 people are still in the hospital, and two people lost eyes because of the rubber bullets, according to Giorgi Kordzakhiya, director of Tbilisi’s New Hospital.
— President of Russia (@KremlinRussia_E) June 21, 2019
President Salome Zurabishvili cut short her trip to Belarus to return to the capital to deal with the crisis.
Meanwhile, the Georgian opposition has called for a new protest outside the parliament on Friday evening, Grigol Vashadze, who lost to Ms Zurabishvili in last year’s run-off, said on Rustavi 2 TV.
The unrest was sparked by the scheduled appearance of Russian politician Sergei Gavrilov, a Communist Party member, at parliament as part of an assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries.
The visit of the Russian delegation of the Orthodox assembly had already prompted complaints, but the anger turned into a street protest after Mr Gavrilov sat in the chair of the Georgian parliament speaker during a session of the assembly.
The protesters were calling for the resignation of the parliamentary speaker and the foreign minister as well as changes in election law ahead of the parliamentary vote slated for next year.
The country’s prime minister Mamuka Bakhtadze on Friday blamed opposition leaders for the violence.
He called the public outpouring “genuine” but said that the protest was hijacked by “the leaders of the destructive opposition who violated the law and the Constitution”.
Georgia and Russia fought a brief war in 2008 at the end of which Russia recognised the independence of Georgia’s two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and still continues to fund and arm the separatist governments there.
The two countries broke off diplomatic relations after the war but steps have been made in recent years to restore ties, including Georgia scrapping visitor visas for Russians and Russia lifting a ban on Georgian wine imports.
But animosity toward Russia is still strong due to the Kremlin’s support of the two separatist governments.
Mr Gavrilov on Friday blamed the clashes on “radical groups” who were trying to stage a “coup”.
Speaking on state Rossiya 24 TV channel, Mr Gavrilov rejected reports that he was fighting on the side of the separatists in Georgia’s Abkhazia, insisting that he had only been there on “humanitarian missions”.
Russian officials reacted to the protests with anger, blaming Georgian politicians trying to undermine the slow thaw in relations between the two countries.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov mentioned thousands of Russian tourists vacationing in this South Caucasus nation as one of the reasons Moscow is concerned about what he has called an anti-Russian “provocation”.