Tens of thousands of Georgians gathered outside the parliament building in the capital Tbilisi on Thursday to protest against a speech made in the country’s parliament by a Russian lawmaker in his own language.
Protesters chanted slogans against Russian President Vladimir Putin and dozens broke through police lines to try to storm the parliament building.
Sergei Gavrilov is the leader of a Russian delegation taking part in the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO), a body set up by the Greek parliament in 1993 to foster relationships between Christian Orthodox lawmakers.
Thursday’s protest was triggered when Gavrilov, currently president of the IAO General Assembly, addressed delegates in Russian from the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s seat.
The two countries have not had diplomatic ties since Russia fought and won a brief war against Georgia in 2008 and then recognised the independence of two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russian troops are now garrisoned.
Georgia’s domestic politics are dominated by relations with its giant neighbour and Soviet-era overlord, with the opposition accusing the ruling Georgian Dream party of being insufficiently firm in confronting Moscow.
“The Georgian Dream has brought the Russian occupants in and let them sit in the speaker’s chair,” Elene Khoshtaria, an opposition member of parliament, said. “That was a slap in the face of recent Georgian history.”
Opposition MPs demanded that the parliamentary speaker, interior minister and state security service chief all resign over the incident.
The Russian delegation’s presence has angered many Georgians, and a boycott by opposition lawmakers who objected to it had already led to the cancellation of an IAO session at the parliament.