TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The speaker of Georgia’s parliament stepped down Friday in the wake of violent clashes that left at least 240 people injured, but the move failed to assuage protesters, who returned to the streets demanding that the interior minister also step down over a brutal police response.
A night of clashes Thursday was sparked by a Russian lawmaker who took the speaker’s seat as a group of international lawmakers met at the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi. It angered the opposition, which sees the current Georgian government as overly friendly to Russian interests.
The protests mark the largest outpouring of anger against the ruling Georgian Dream since it took power in 2012.
Officials said at least 240 people were injured when riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and unleashed water cannon on protesters outside Georgia’s parliament building during the clashes that lasted into early Friday. More than 100 people are still in the hospital, and two people lost eyes because of the rubber bullets, according to Giorgi Kordzakhiya, director of Tbilisi’s New Hospital.
Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze blamed opposition leaders for the violence, saying they hijacked a “genuine” public outpouring but then “violated the law and the Constitution.”
Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who was out of the country on an official visit, handed in his resignation but several thousand protesters returned to the parliament building Friday, demanding the interior minister also resign. Many wore eyepatches in solidarity with those who lost their eyes.
President Salome Zurabishvili also cut short a foreign trip to return to the capital.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday ordered that the country’s airlines stop transporting Russian citizens to Georgia beginning July 8, citing national security concerns. The reason for delaying the implementation wasn’t immediately clear. He also ordered officials to assist in bringing Russians home from Georgia.
The move carries echoes of Russia’s full ban on transport links with Georgia in 2006 amid rising tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi. Air connections were restored in 2010, two years after a short war between Russia and Georgia.
Anti-Russian sentiments run deep in Georgia, which made a botched attempt to regain control over breakaway province of South Ossetia during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, sparking the 2008 war that routed the Georgian military in five days of fighting. Moscow then recognized the independence of South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia and set up military bases there.
Georgian Dream, which is led and funded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has controlled parliament and dominated the nation’s political scene since in 2012.
“We will do everything to oust this government that serves Russia,” said 32-year-old lawyer Demetre Saladze, who was among the protesters Friday.
Engineer Vakhtang Kiriya, 28, vowed that the protesters will make the government answer for the brutal police crackdown.
“We will fight until Ivanishvili and his team flee Georgia,” he said. “They should get ready to board their jets.”
Sergei Gavrilov, the Russian lawmaker who sparked the conflict by taking the Georgian speaker’s seat, on Friday blamed the clashes on “radical groups” who he said were trying to stage a “coup.” Speaking on Russian state TV, he rejected reports that he was fighting on the side of separatists in Abkhazia, saying he had only been there on “humanitarian missions.”
Russia and Georgia broke off diplomatic relations after the 2008 war, but steps have been made in recent years to restore ties, including Georgia scrapping visitor visas for Russians and Russia lifting a ban on Georgian wine and fruit imports. Still, animosity toward Russia remains strong due to the Kremlin’s support of the two separatist regions.
Other Russian officials blamed Georgian politicians for trying to undermine the slow thaw in relations.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that thousands of Russian tourists vacationing were in Georgia, as a reason of Moscow’s concern about what he described as an anti-Russian “provocation.”
Nataliya Vasilyeva, Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow and Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi contributed to this report.