'Russia is our enemy and occupier,' says Georgia president, amid violent protests
Salome Zourabichvili cuts short trip to Belarus to deal with domestic crisis
Georgia's president called Russia "an enemy and occupier" and suggested Moscow had helped trigger protests that rocked Tbilisi, but the Kremlin on Friday blamed radical Georgian politicians for "an anti-Russian provocation."
The strong statement from Salome Zourabichvili followed violent scenes in the Georgian capital, where police used tear gas and fired rubber bullets late Thursday to stop crowds angered by the visit of a Russian lawmaker from storming the parliament building.
Officials said at least 240 people were injured in the clashes, some of them seriously, as demonstrators pushed against lines of riot police, threw bottles and stones, and grabbed riot shields, drawing a tough response.
"Russia is our enemy and occupier. The fifth column it manages may be more dangerous than open aggression," Zourabichvili posted on her Facebook page after the unrest.
"Only Russia benefits from a split in the country and society and internal confrontation, and it's the most powerful weapon today."
Zourabichvili, who was visiting Belarus, planned to cut short her official visit there due to events at home, her spokesperson told Reuters.
Russian influence in Georgia remains a politically sensitive subject, with the opposition accusing the ruling Georgian Dream party — which backed Zourabichvili for the presidency late last year — of being too meek when it comes to confronting Moscow.
The small south Caucasus nation, a U.S. ally, lost a short war against Moscow in 2008. The two countries have not had diplomatic ties since, and Russia went on to recognize the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russian troops are now garrisoned.
Russian lawmaker's speech sparks controversy
The crowds were angry about the visit of a Russian delegation led by Sergei Gavrilov, a member of Russia's lower house of parliament, who was taking part in an event designed to foster relations between Orthodox Christian lawmakers.
Gavrilov addressed delegates in his native Russian from the Georgian parliamentary speaker's seat, angering some Georgian politicians and citizens who want Russia kept at arm's length.
The opposition called on people to take to the streets again Friday evening. Thousands of Georgians gathered outside parliament where opposition leaders gave the floor to young activists and students. Police were present, though not in large numbers.
Opposition MPs have demanded the parliamentary Speaker, interior minister and state security service chief all resign.
Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze did so Friday, said the ruling Georgian Dream party's secretary general, Kakha Kaladze.
Gavrilov told a Moscow news conference Friday he believed the protests had been planned.
"Our common view is that there's an obvious attempt in Georgia right now to stage a coup d'etat and that extremist forces are trying to seize power."
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the safety of Gavrilov and other members of the Russian delegation had been endangered, and Moscow was seriously concerned, given how popular Georgia remains with Russian tourists.
"Everything that happened yesterday in Georgia is nothing other than an anti-Russian provocation," said Peskov.
Georgia, criss-crossed by energy pipelines, hopes one day to join the European Union and NATO, an ambition that has infuriated Moscow, the country's former Soviet overlord.
A Reuters witness said Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, which runs in front of parliament, was closed to traffic on Friday, and the building was heavily guarded by police.