TBILISI — Thousands of demonstrators have gathered for a fourth day in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, calling for the resignations of some top officials and early elections.
The protest on June 23 began at around 7 p.m. local time with people gathering in front of the parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi.
Some protesters were holding banners that denounced Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia Is An Occupier” one banner read. Another protester wore a T-shirt with writing saying, “Georgian writers and publishers will never tolerate Russian occupation.”
Some protesters condemned the Georgian authorities after violent clashes between protesters and police three days earlier resulted in hundreds of injuries and arrests.
A poster in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi showed an image of a seriously wounded protester who was reportedly struck in the eye with a rubber bullet on the evening of June 20.
In an apparent reference to the injured protester, some people were wearing eyepatches as they attended the rally on June 23. Some eyepatches had anti-Russian slogans written on them.
The protest rally on June 23 was so far peaceful, with only a relatively small police presence.
On June 22, opposition figures announced that protests would continue even after the parliament speaker, Irakli Kobakhidze, resigned on June 21 — meeting one of their demands.
Protest leaders said the rallies would continue until their wider demands were met, including a call for the interior minister to step down, the release of those arrested on the first night of protests, and the punishing of law-enforcement officers who used violence against the crowd.
Demonstrators initially gathered on June 20 to express their anger at Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov, who had sat in the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s seat while addressing a council of lawmakers from predominantly Orthodox Christian countries — the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO).
The symbolism of a Russian lawmaker speaking in Russian from the parliamentary speaker’s chair touched nerves in Tbilisi, sparking the ire of the public, opposition parties, Georgia’s president, and members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
While the protests were sparked by concerns about how Georgia handles relations with Russia, opposition parties have sought to seize the moment to press much wider and unrelated demands over economic and political woes that are plaguing the country.
There is “a feeling that [the government] is out of touch with society, that it’s unaccountable, that it’s quite arrogant,” Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, told RFE/RL, adding that the opposition is “keen to play the Russia card and accuse Georgian Dream of being soft on Russia.”
Russia-Georgian relations have been strained for more than a decade.
Russian troops crossed into Georgia in August 2008 and temporarily occupied several Georgian cities in a brief war in which Moscow backed separatists in Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili called Russia “an enemy and occupier” and suggested Moscow had helped trigger the initial protests.
“The fifth column that it manages may be more dangerous than open aggression,” Zurabishvili posted on her Facebook page.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin on June 21 expressed what he called “indignation at the actions taken by representatives of the radical political forces of Georgia.”
Karasin said the demonstrators in Tbilisi “used an important international forum uniting the Orthodox states of the world to spew their anti-Russian sentiments.”
On June 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a temporary ban on Russian airlines from flying to Georgia as of July 8, and recommended that travel agencies suspend tours to the former Soviet republic.
The Georgian government said 240 people were treated in hospitals with injuries sustained in the violent clashes with security officials after they tried to break through riot police lines to storm parliament. More than 100 people remained hospitalized on the afternoon of June 21, some with wounds from rubber bullets police fired at the protesters.
Georgian media said that dozens of people were detained during the first night of the protest, with some reporting many had since been released.