In Georgia’s Parliament, One Russian Too Many

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

Following violent unrest, the speaker of the Georgian Parliament steps down after a Russian lawmaker sat in his chair.

Protesters hold a Georgian flag

TBILISI, Georgia—For several years, the ruling Georgian Dream party has sought to walk a fine line between appeasing popular enthusiasm for the West and placating neighboring Russia, which occupies one-fifth of the country’s territory. But the decision to let a visiting Russian parliamentarian momentarily sit in the chair of the Georgian Parliament speaker on Thursday clearly crossed that line, sparking two nights of protests.

An estimated 10,000 people gathered in front of the Georgian Parliament on Thursday after a Russian lawmaker and member of the Communist Party, Sergei Gavrilov, sat in the parliamentary speaker’s chair during a meeting of politicians from predominantly Orthodox countries.

On Friday, following a night of violent unrest in the capital, Tbilisi, in which more than 200 people were injured and 305 arrested, Irakli Kobakhidze, the speaker of the Parliament in the former Soviet republic, announced that he would step down. Two people lost eyes after police unexpectedly opened fire using rubber bullets in a bid to disperse the protests—the largest Georgia has seen in years.

In response to the protests, which centered on Russia’s occupation of Georgia, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Friday temporarily suspending flights between Russia and Georgia, which will come into force on July 8.

The symbolism of a Russian at the helm of the Parliament, even temporarily, sparked outrage in Georgia, which fought a short but bitter war with Russia in 2008. Since then, Russia has kept troops stationed in Georgia’s two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, de facto occupying some 20 percent of the country’s territory.

Gavrilov, the Russian lawmaker, has previously backed the independence of the breakaway regions, which is not recognized by Tbilisi or the international community.

Zakaria Kutsnashvili, a member of Parliament from the Georgian Dream party who organized the visit, also resigned on Friday.

“The government shot itself in the foot twice, first by allowing this Russian guy to sit in the speaker’s chair—which caused this protest—and then in the way they dispersed the crowd,” said Ghia Nodia, a politics professor at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University.

A second protest began on Friday night, with a heavy police presence and a number of ambulances waiting on the sidelines. In reference to the people who lost eyes after Thursday’s protests, many protests wore red eye patches with “20%” written on them—a nod to Russia’s occupation.

“If people were not protesting yesterday, the whole country will come out [now] because young people were almost killed,” said one demonstrator, Anna Macharadze, at Friday night’s protest.

The demonstrations have also tapped into an underlying dissatisfaction with the government and a growing cynicism about the country’s political elite, Nodia said. An opinion poll carried out in December 2018 by the National Democratic Institute found that just 29 percent of Georgians believed their country was heading in the right direction.

The Georgian opposition party United National Movement (UNM) demanded that Kobakhidze, as well as the Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, be dismissed and for new elections to be held using a proportional representation voting system.

Grigol Vashadze, an UNM leader, described the current government led by the Georgian Dream party as a “regime.”

The secretary-general of Georgian Dream said the speaker’s decision to step down was not a capitulation to the opposition but represented the accountability of the Georgian government.

While the unrest was a spontaneous reaction to seeing a Russian in the parliamentary speaker’s chair, the UNM’s effort to take ownership of the protests has not been well received, as the party was also accused of using excessive force in response to anti-government protests while in government.

“[The] UNM discourse that any kind of protest should be used to push a revolutionary scenario is not very productive,” Nodia said.

Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into the use of force and urged the police to respond only with a force proportional to the threat presented by protesters.

One of the people who lost an eye after being struck by a rubber bullet was 18-year-old Maia Gomuri, who was on her way home from work, according to the Georgian news site Netgazeti. Dozens of journalists were also injured.

The clashes evoked memories of a violent crackdown by the Georgian authorities in November 2007, when police used tear gas and water guns to disperse anti-government protests, injuring more than 500 people. It was a turning point in the fortunes of the UNM, whose leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, had been swept to power following the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003.

Despite the party’s record of radically reforming Georgia, which until 2003 teetered on the edge of becoming a failed state, accusations of excessive use of force would ultimately be one of the reasons the UNM lost to Georgian Dream in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

While Georgian Dream has formally continued its predecessor’s policy of closer integration with NATO and the European Union—a direction supported by an overwhelming majority of the population—it has simultaneously sought to improve ties with Moscow, and many Georgians fear the party has not done enough to tackle Russia’s influence.

“People are fed up with feeling that this government is not standing up for Georgia’s sovereignty,” said Ted Jonas, a U.S. attorney who has lived in Georgia for many years.

Jonas said questions would be raised as to why the Georgian government agreed to host the Orthodox assembly in the first place. The Russian Orthodox Church has long served as a conduit for Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe and has a potent influence in highly religious Georgia. “Maybe this event will help them realize that the Orthodox Church as it is today is too pro-Russian and not a strong force for Georgia’s independence,” Jonas said. 

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy on June 21st, 2019.