Georgia Stages Protests While Its Relations With Russia Are in a Tailspin

By Andrew Higgins

ImageProtesters near Georgia’s Parliament on Saturday in Tbilisi.
Protesters near Georgia’s Parliament on Saturday in Tbilisi.CreditCreditIrakli Gedenidze/Reuters

MOSCOW — With relations between Russia and Georgia heading toward their lowest ebb since a brief war in 2008, thousands of protesters gathered in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi for a third night on Saturday, waving banners and shouting slogans against Russian meddling.

The latest opposition-led demonstrations, fired by fury at both Moscow and the Georgian government, followed a decision late Friday by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to cancel all flights from Russia to Georgia starting on July 8. It was a move clearly designed to hit Georgia’s booming tourist industry.

The daily protests outside Georgia’s Parliament, organized by opposition activists and students, began on Thursday, when a large crowd of mostly young people, angry that a Russian legislator had been allowed to speak inside the building, violently clashed with police officers. At least 240 people were injured, many hit by rubber bullets fired by security forces, who also used tear gas.

The violence, which state-controlled Russian media outlets presented as a frenzy of Russophobia orchestrated by mysterious English speakers with American accents, has sent relations between the countries into a tailspin.

Saturday’s protests were mostly orderly but tensions rose late in the evening as the crowd moved from the parliament building to the headquarters of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party, which the opposition accuses of being too accommodating toward Russia.

ImageA man carried an injured protester during clashes with the police outside Parliament in Tbilisi on Friday.
A man carried an injured protester during clashes with the police outside Parliament in Tbilisi on Friday.CreditZurab Tsertsvadze/Associated Press

Mr. Putin, whom many Georgians blame for the loss of around 20 percent of their country’s territory to Russian-backed separatists, announced the flight ban on Friday. The move was part of a series of mostly unspecified measures to “ensure the national security of the Russian Federation and to protect citizens of the Russian Federation from criminal and other illegal actions.”

The Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny mocked Mr. Putin’s pledge to protect the security of Russian citizens by disrupting their holiday plans in Georgia.

“They bought package trips, drank wine and ate barbecued meat and now he tells them: Leave urgently because there won’t be any planes,” Mr. Navalny tweeted.

No Russian citizens are known to have been hurt in the unrest in Tbilisi. Most Russians who visit Georgia marvel at the absence of overt hostility to them or their language, despite the Russian army’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and Moscow’s support for two breakaway Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

All the same, Mr. Putin has made protecting Russians abroad from supposed threats the centerpiece of his rule since he seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Like Georgia, Ukraine is another former Soviet republic that has been presented by the Kremlin and its propaganda machine as a hotbed of violent Russophobia.

Though driven in part by popular anger at Russia, which finances and arms separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and recognizes them as independent states, the protests are also rooted in a deep domestic political rift between supporters and foes of Georgian Dream.

Former President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia arriving at the airport in Boryspil, Ukraine, last month.CreditSergey Dolzhenko/EPA, via Shutterstock

The protesters have advanced no plausible proposals for how to regain territory controlled by separatists since the 1990s and focused instead on calling for early elections and the resignation of senior officials.

“The Russia factor was the trigger for this crisis, but it was not the cause,” said Thomas de Waal, a British expert on the Caucasus and author of several books on the region. “The cause was very polarized domestic politics in which the opposition plays the Russian card to discredit the government.”

The government, he added, “scored an own goal” by allowing a member of Russia’s Parliament, Sergei Gavrilov, to address an assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries held in the Georgian Parliament. But “this would not have mattered if the government had been popular. It crystallized a sense that the government is not competent.”

Georgia’s self-exiled former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his supporters have for years accused the government of selling out the country to Russia, but they have failed to persuade voters that this is the case, losing repeatedly in national elections.

Mr. Saakashvili, who faces criminal charges in Georgia, has devoted his political energies in recent years to Ukraine, where he served for a time as a regional governor. But he has jumped on the current crisis in Tbilisi to rally a small but ardent group of fans at home. He outraged authorities in Tbilisi by calling on police officers to disobey orders and “go over to the side of the people.”

Georgia’s French-born president, Salome Zourabichvili, who has denounced Russia as “an enemy and occupier,” dismissed the former president, who took Ukrainian nationality, as “a citizen of another country” and said he had no business calling for a police mutiny.

Georgia and Russia have still not restored diplomatic relations severed after the 2008 war but until the current protests, which have featured protesters burning portraits of Mr. Putin, the countries had begun to reduce tensions. This was in part because of a flood of Russian tourists — around a million visited last year — and the lifting of a Russian ban on wine imports from Georgia.