TBILISI -- Thousands of Georgians are protesting peacefully a day after violent clashes with police that were touched off after a Russian member of parliament was allowed to sit in the speaker’s chair of the Georgian parliament during a session of the assembly.
Parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze resigned earlier on June 20 over the incident, meeting one of the demands of the protesters, who are also calling for the interior minister to step down, as well as early parliamentary elections.
Demonstrators on June 20 gathered to express their anger at Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov, who had sat in the Georgian parliament 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.
The Georgian government says 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.
Organizers of the Georgia’s first LGBT+ pride march cancelled the June 22 event, saying the wave of political unrest forced them to change their plans.
A statement on Kobakhidze's resignation was read out to journalists in Tbilisi on June 21 by Mayor Kakha Kaladze, the Secretary General of the ruling Georgian Dream party, after a meeting of the party leadership.
Although Kobakhidze was standing in the briefing room while the statement was being read out to journalists, he left the room without making any comment.
Georgian Dream co-leader Mamuka Mdinaradze said that the Georgian parliament’s majority leader Archil Talakvadze is the only candidate being considered to replace Kobakhidze as parliamentary speaker.
After Kobakhidze's resignation was announced, a coalition of opposition parties called for the release of all demonstrators who were detained by authorities overnight.
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.
Since the war, Russia has occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia in violation of a cease-fire agreement.
Georgians view Gavrilov as an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and say he backs Russian support for separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has called for the "public to stay calm."
Zurabishvili called Gavrilov's actions a "major crime" that "damages the country's dignity."
But she said the actions of the Russian lawmaker in Georgia's parliament did not justify what she described as "the artificially incited waves [of protest]...and calls made...to storm the parliament and overthrow the government."
For his part, Gavrilov told Rossia-24 TV on June 21 he thought the angry backlash against his behavior in the Georgian parliament was "a deliberate provocation aimed at hindering efforts to strengthen relations between the Russian and Georgian peoples."
In light of the turbulence, on June 21 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 president will revise this decision only when the situation in Georgia is normalized and there is not the slightest threat to the security of our citizens," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by TASS as saying.
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."
The U.S. Embassy in Georgia said it understood many people felt "hurt" by Gavrilov's actions. But it called on all sides "to remain calm, show restraint, and act within the framework of the constitution."