TBILISI -- Veteran Russian journalist and television host Vladimir Pozner has cut short a visit to Georgia to celebrate his 87th birthday after harassment from local activists and opposition groups angry over his stance on Georgian territorial integrity.
Local critics pelted Pozner's bus with eggs, cut power to the venue hosting his feast, and accused him of being a "Kremlin propagandist" during their frenzy on March 31 and April 1.
Pozner, a dual Russian-U.S. national, reportedly left the country early on April 1, while many in his dozens-strong contingent were fined for allegedly breaking anti-pandemic restrictions as they tried to stay one step ahead of the demonstrators.
The extraordinary events prompted Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili to speak out to defend his Georgian Dream government's decision to permit the visit, saying that Pozner had a valid negative COVID-19 test on entry and did not appear to have broken local laws aimed at opposing Russia's military occupation of its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Pozner was traveling in a private visit on his U.S. passport, Gharibashvili said.
Gharibashvili, who took power last month amid an intraparty rift, blamed the opposition National Movement and its supporters and said the incidents had "employed the most destructive force" and "damaged the international image of our country."
Russian troops have been in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since a five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 before Moscow backed those regions' independence.
Pozner's tormenters said they don't want Pozner in their country and criticized Georgian Dream for allowing him to come.
In 2010, Pozner said that "Georgia lost [Abkhazia] forever" and the area "will never be Georgia's territory again." He also blamed Tbilisi for the situation that led to the deadly Russian-Georgian conflict.
Opposition supporters and other critics of Pozner's presence rallied outside his hotel in Tbilisi following his arrival on March 31.
In some cases, demonstrators holding placards calling Pozner a "Kremlin propagandist" and "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin's ideologist" clashed with police.
They cut off electricity to a venue hosting a dinner event at least twice, and some reportedly tried to force their way into the hotel.
Pozner and his entourage left a second hotel early on April 1 surrounded by police, who accompanied them to Tbilisi's international airport.
Pozner complained that he "came to [Georgia] not to talk about politics but to mark" his birthday.
The Interior Ministry said on April 1 that Pozner and 31 of his 41 associates were fined 2,000 laris ($585) each for violating sanitary regulations introduced over the coronavirus pandemic while moving between the two hotels.
His initial hotel, Vinotel, was reportedly fined 10,000 laris ($2,925) for hosting a birthday party for Pozner and his companions, since public gatherings at restaurants are banned by coronavirus restrictions.
Gharibashvili called the protests "actions that violated civilized norms and Georgian standards."
Major protests by thousands of people were sparked in Tbilisi in June 2019 after Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov spoke in Russian from the speaker's chair of the Georgian parliament during an international meeting of Orthodox-minded lawmakers.
The resulting protest outside parliament descended into violence when riot police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons.
More than 240 people were injured in that crackdown, including more than 30 journalists and 80 policemen.