Tbilisi―Several thousand anti-government protesters took to the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi for a fourth day on Sunday as tensions rose between Moscow and its ex-Soviet neighbor.
The Tbilisi protests erupted after a Russian lawmaker addressed parliament from the speaker’s seat last week, a hugely sensitive move for two countries whose ties remain strained after a brief war in 2008.
The rallies have quickly morphed into a broader movement against billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, widely believed to be calling the shots in Georgia as a leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party he founded.
Demonstrators have gathered in front of the imposing building of Georgia’s parliament, flooding the capital’s main Rustavi Avenue and blocking traffic.
Protest placards took aim at billionaire tycoon Ivanishvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in response to the protests has banned Russian airlines from flying to Georgia and Georgian air carriers traveling to Russia.
“Russia will not enslave my country again!” read one of the placards.
Chanting “Resign!” protesters marched at midnight towards the seat of the Georgian government which was encircled by a police cordon.
Waving Georgia’s five-cross red-and-white flags, they sang the national anthem and-before dispersing―vowed to resume the protest on Monday at 1500 GMT.
In another sign of the tense atmosphere, dozens of riot police were deployed outside Ivanishvili’s hilltop residence that overlooks Tbilisi, according to footage broadcast by Rustavi-2, a pro-opposition television channel earlier Sunday.
The Kremlin has branded the Tbilisi protests a “Russophobic provocation” and suspended air travel from July 8, in a move criticized by many Russians.
The protesters said they were against Putin and not ordinary Russians.
“We are fighting against Putinism,” prominent Georgian novelist Lasha Bugadze said at the rally on Sunday.
“We’ve got no problems whatsoever with the Russian people, we are not xenophobes.”
Ahead of planned parliamentary polls next year, the opposition is demanding electoral reform and snap elections, hoping to capitalize on discontent with the ruling party over its failure to kickstart a stagnant economy.
Opposition parties have also accused Ivanishvili of an “informal oligarch rule,” eroding state institutions, and electoral fraud.
The first day of the protests saw a violent police crackdown that left 160 demonstrators and 80 police officers injured. More than 300 people were arrested.
Media reports said that several protesters –- including a 19-year-old girl -- that were hit by rubber bullets have lost their sight.
The leader of Georgia’s opposition Republican Party, Levan Berdzenishvili, told AFP that the appearance of a Russian MP in parliament’s plenary chamber “was the last straw for Georgians, long frustrated over Ivanishvili’s dysfunctional government and the backsliding of the country’s democracy.”
“Ordinary Georgians and political parties are united in their resolve to get rid of oligarchic rule,” the veteran politician added.
“We are fed up, Russia’s puppet Ivanishvili has usurped power in Georgia,” said Kakha Vasadze, a 28-year-old musician.
Soso Gagoshvili, a 56-year-old chemist, said Ivanishvili must go. “Oligarchic rule has no place in the 21st century.”
Relations between Georgia and its Soviet-era master Russia have long been fractured over Tbilisi’s bid to join the European Union and NATO.
The confrontation culminated in a full-out war over Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August 2008.
After the war, which claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers and civilians from both sides, Moscow recognized South Ossetia and another separatist enclave, Abkhazia, as independent states where it then stationed permanent military bases.
Tbilisi and its Western allies have denounced the move as an “illegal military occupation.”
The two regions constitute 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.