TBILISI -- Georgian protesters, furious after a Russian lawmaker occupied the speaker’s seat inside parliament in Tbilisi, continued to battle with riot police into the early morning hours on June 21.
Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas around 2 a.m. as they sought to disperse the remaining protesters outside the parliament building. About 70 people were reported injured, including 39 police, government officials said.
The public outrage erupted after Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov occupied the Georgian speaker’s seat in parliament, a symbolic reminder of Russia's unwanted influence over its smaller southern neighbor.
Gavrilov, a communist member of the Russian Duma, was visiting Tbilisi to chair the general assembly of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO), which attracts lawmakers from around Europe.
Georgians view Gavrilov as an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and say he backs Russian support for the Georgian separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, perhaps the most pressing issue for the nation.
Tbilisi's quest to gain full control over the two breakaway regions and join western institutions, including NATO, sparked a five-day war with Russia in 2008.
Georgia claims Putin is trying to keep their nation within Russia’s sphere of influence.
When Gavrilov sought to return to the speaker’s seat after a break, Georgian parliamentarians blocked his access, saying they would not let the Russian “desecrate state institutions,” local media reported.
Following the confrontation inside parliament, the Orthodox assembly was suspended and security escorted Gavrilov and his delegation out of the building.
Protesters then began to gather in front of the legislature to demand parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze step down. Some of them waved Georgian, EU and U.S. flags while others held placards that read "Russia is an occupier."
Kobakhidze, who was on a working visit to Baku, claims he requested the assembly of Orthodox representatives be immediately terminated when he heard the news.
“It was very hard for everyone to see what we saw in the parliament today. Russia is a country that has occupied 20 percent of our territories, and a deputy of this country was sitting in the chair of the parliament speaker,” he said.
Toward midnight, as thousands of people assembled in front of the parliament, some protesters tried to storm the building.
Protesters tossed objects at the long line of police dressed in full riot gear as they struggled to break through. Others yanked helmets and shields from the officers.
Then the police began to battle back, first firing tear gas into the crowd. As they fled, protesters covered their faces with their shirts and hands to avoid the sting of the gas.
“Tear gas in my eyes. Tear gas in my throat too. Multiple canisters shot,” tweeted Onnik Krikorian, a Georgia-based photographer and contributor to intelligence firm Stratfor, shortly before midnight.
The police went "crazy" with a "constant barrage" of tear gas, he said.
Police then began firing rubber bullets at the remaining protesters, leaving many bleeding from the face and body. Ambulances arrived at the scene to care for the injured.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili called Gavrilov’s actions a “major crime,” but said it did not justify the public unrest and hinted someone was behind the protest.
A Russian sitting in the speaker’s seat “was an insult to the country and its honor. However, this cannot excuse the artificially instigated wave [of protests] aimed at storming the parliament and causing a coup,” she said.
The U.S. Embassy in Georgia said it understands many people felt "hurt" by Gavrilov's action, but called on all sides "to remain calm, show restraint, and act within the framework of the Constitution."
Gavrilov said in a statement on the Duma website that the Georgian parliament was occupied by radicals, adding Russia and Georgia are “united by fraternal Orthodox ties.”
The IAO was founded in 1994 and is based in Greece. Its purpose is to foster unity among Orthodox Christians based on Christian and democratic values and principles, according to the general assembly’s 2013 declaration.