Russia suspends flights to Georgia amid unrest

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Media captionRiot police blocked crowds storming parliament on Thursday night

President Vladimir Putin has temporarily banned Russian airlines from flying to Georgia following a spate of violent unrest in the country.

He signed the decree – which will be implemented from 8 July – on Friday.

It came after some 240 people were hurt a day earlier in protests that were ignited by the appearance of a Russian MP in Georgia’s parliament.

Tensions between the countries remain high, 11 years after they fought a war over the region of South Ossetia.

Moscow will also recommend that Russian travel agencies suspend all tours to neighbouring Georgia.

Sergei Gavrilov, the Russian MP who sparked the fury on Thursday, addressed an assembly of MPs from Orthodox Christian nations.

But protesters stormed the parliament in the capital, Tbilisi, and police used rubber bullets and tear gas in an attempt to disperse them.

The speaker of Georgia’s parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, has resigned following the violence. He faced a fierce backlash for inviting Mr Gavrilov to give the speech.

Deep frustrations on show

Analysis by Rayhan Demytrie in Tbilisi

Protesters gathered again on Friday night outside the Georgian parliament building where they have been chanting “No to Russia” over and over again.

But they have motives that extend beyond denouncing Moscow. These demonstrators want the Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia to resign over his handling of the unrest.

These people are also angry at how the police dealt with Thursday’s protests. They used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to push back the crowd in what were ugly scenes.

And on Friday, protesters came out in bigger numbers. It appears the visit of a Russian MP has unlocked much deeper frustrations with the current administration and the way it has handled relations with its northern neighbour Russia.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili called Russia “an enemy and occupier”, saying Moscow had helped to stir the unrest.

The Kremlin condemned the protests as “Russophobic provocation”. Russia’s foreign ministry accused Georgia’s opposition of trying to prevent an improvement in bilateral relations in recent years.

What caused the protests?

Mr Gavrilov was taking part in the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO) – a body set up by the Greek parliament in 1993 to foster relations between Christian Orthodox lawmakers.

Opposition MPs in Georgia’s parliament called for protests in response to his decision to deliver a speech in Russian from the speaker’s seat.

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AFP/Getty Images

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Sergei Gavrilov described Thursday’s protest as a “provocation”

About 10,000 protesters later breached the police cordon in Tbilisi, demanding the resignation of the parliamentary speaker and other senior officials. Some were carrying EU flags and placards reading “Russia is an occupier”.

Giga Bokeria, an opposition MP for the European Georgia party, told AFP the rally outside parliament had been “a spontaneous protest by ordinary Georgians”.

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Getty Images

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Demonstrators remained camped outside the parliament building in Tbilisi late on Friday

Inside parliament, opposition lawmakers demanded that the parliamentary speaker, interior minister and state security service chief all resign over the incident. The session was suspended, and Mr Gavrilov later flew back to Russia.

“That was a slap in the face of recent Georgian history,” Elene Khoshtaria, an opposition member of parliament, said.

Why are there tensions between Georgia and Russia?

When Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, separatist conflicts erupted in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In August 2008, Georgia attempted to recapture South Ossetia. Russia poured troops in, ousting Georgian forces and only halting the advance within striking distance of Tbilisi.

Following a ceasefire, Russia withdrew most of its troops from undisputed parts of Georgia but still maintains a military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recognising both as “independent” states.

Since then, diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia remain clouded by mutual suspicion. To the ire of Moscow, Georgia has ambitions to join the European Union and Nato. But bilateral trade and tourism have been growing in recent years.

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