Georgians protest despite resignation

POLICE BRUTALITY::Protesters demand the resignation of the interior minister after riot police fired rubber bullets into a crowd, causing at least two people to lose eyes

AP, TBILISI

Sun, Jun 23, 2019 - Page 5

The speaker of Georgia’s parliament on Friday stepped down in the wake of violent clashes that left at least 240 people injured, but the move failed to assuage protesters, who returned to the streets demanding that the interior minister also step down over a brutal police response.

A night of clashes on Thursday was sparked by a Russian lawmaker who took the speaker’s seat as a group of international lawmakers met at the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi.

It angered the opposition, which sees the government as overly friendly to Russian interests.

The protests mark the largest outpouring of anger against the ruling Georgian Dream since it took power in 2012.

Officials said at least 240 people were injured when riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and unleashed water cannon on protesters outside parliament building during the clashes that lasted into early Friday.

More than 100 people were still in hospital and two people lost eyes because of the rubber bullets, Tbilisi New Hospital director Giorgi Kordzakhiya said.

Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze blamed opposition leaders for the violence, saying they hijacked a “genuine” public outpouring, but then “violated the law and the constitution.”

Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who was out of the country on an official visit, handed in his resignation, but several thousand protesters returned to the parliament building on Friday, demanding that the interior minister also resign. Many wore eyepatches in solidarity with those who lost their eyes.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili also cut short a foreign trip to return to the capital.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday ordered that the country’s airlines stop transporting Russian citizens to Georgia beginning on July 8, citing national security concerns.

The reason for delaying the implementation was not immediately clear.

He also ordered officials to assist in bringing Russians home.

The move carries echoes of Russia’s full ban on transport links with Georgia in 2006 amid rising tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi. Air connections were restored in 2010, two years after a short war between Russia and Georgia.

Anti-Russian sentiments run deep in Georgia, which made a botched attempt to regain control over breakaway province of South Ossetia during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, sparking the 2008 war that routed the Georgian military in five days of fighting.

Moscow then recognized the independence of South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia and set up military bases there.

Georgian Dream, which is led and funded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has controlled parliament and dominated the nation’s political scene since in 2012.

“We will do everything to oust this government that serves Russia,” said 32-year-old lawyer Demetre Saladze, who was among the protesters.