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Georgians Protest For Fifth Night Despite Promised Reforms

Protesters waive the Georgian and U.S. flags during a motorcade rally in Tbilisi on June 24.

TBILISI -- Georgians have taken to the streets of Tbilisi for a fifth day after their country's ruling party failed to meet all their demands.

Several thousand protesters gathered outside the parliament building on the evening of June 24, blocking traffic in Rustaveli Avenue, the capital’s main thoroughfare.

Earlier in the day, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said that the 2020 parliamentary elections should be held under a proportional system -- bowing to the one of the protesters’ key demands.

Ivanishvili said that no threshold for parties should be applied during the elections. It was the second concession by officials to disgruntled citizens. Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze resigned on June 21 amid calls for his ouster.

However, protest leaders said that the rallies would continue until their wider demands were met, including dismissal of the interior minister, release of those arrested on the first night of protests, and punishment of law-enforcement officers who used violence against the crowd.

The government said 240 people were treated for injuries sustained in the violent clashes with security officials on June 20 after they tried to break through riot-police lines to storm parliament. Some of them sustained wounds from rubber bullets police fired at the protesters.

More than 300 demonstrators were detained that evening.

Demonstrators initially gathered on June 20 to express their anger over Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov occupying the Georgian speaker's seat as he addressed a council of lawmakers from predominantly Orthodox Christian countries.

The symbolism of a Russian lawmaker speaking in Russian from the parliament speaker's chair sparked the ire of the public, opposition parties, Georgia's president, and members of the Georgian Dream coalition.

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. The two regions account for 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.

While the protests were initially sparked by anger over Russia’s treatment of Georgia, opposition parties have sought to seize the moment to press for unrelated demands over economic and political woes that are plaguing the country.

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.

Russia has reacted negatively to the protests and comments by officials.

President Vladimir Putin has ordered a temporary ban on flights from Russia to Georgia effective July 8, and recommended that travel agencies suspend tours to the former Soviet republic.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on June 25 that the flight ban reflected concerns about the safety of Russian travelers amid what he called "Russophobic hysteria" in Georgia.

The ban could be lifted after the tensions abate, Peskov told reporters.

Meanwhile, Russia's consumer-safety watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, said that it had noticed what it described as a "deterioration" in the quality of Georgian wine and had "tightened control" of all Georgian alcoholic beverages entering Russia.

Georgia depends on Russian tourists for a significant part of its overall economic activity. Russia, a crucial market for Georgian wine exports, has in the past cited sanitary reasons for food import bans widely seen as politically driven.

With reporting by AP and AFP