This summer in Georgia saw aggravated tensions with Russia. The address to the Georgian Parliament made by a Russian MP spawned series of violent protests. In response Moscow banned passenger airline service to Georgia, challenging the tourist season, and accused Tbilisi of genocide of Ossetian people in 1920.
Tbilisi protests, people injured
Prior to this summer the name of Sergei Gavrilov, a Russian State Duma MP from the Communist Party of Russia, was virtually unknown with an exception of some of his colleagues. However, it was his address to the Georgian Parliament at the 26th General Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy that provoked series of violent protests in Tbilisi.
It was for the first time that Assembly took place in Tbilisi on June 19-21. Gavrilov was leading the assembly, sitting in the chair of the Georgian Parliament Speaker and making his address in Russian, which angered some MPs. During the break between the sessions the representatives of the opposition broke into the Parliament. The session was disrupted, while Gavrilov and other Russian MPs were asked to leave the country. Moreover, they were bombarded with eggs in front of their hotel and had to leave for the airport accompanied by the police.
The protest relocated to the building of the Parliament. Many thousands of angry citizens demanded the resignation of the speaker who at the time was making an official visit to Baku. Irakli Kobakhidze stated that he had no intention of resigning. The tensions reached their peak. Journalists and MPs forming the parliamentary minority were asked to leave the building of the Parliament. Clashes started between some protesters and the police. Several hours later the police fired teargas and shotguns with rubber buckshot, giving no warning. Over 240 protesters were injured including some journalists. Two lost their eyes, 121 were arrested. 80 policemen were injured as well.
The break-up of the protest dramatically aggravated the situation. The leader of the ruling party Bidzina Ivanishvili came up with an initiative to hold parliamentary elections this fall under the proportional representation system with a zero threshold. The Parliament’s speaker Irakli Kobakhidze resigned, however, the protests went on demanding to remove the minister of internal affairs Giorgi Gakharia from his post.
At the same time another dramatic development followed around the main opposition outlet – a TV channel “Rustavi-2”. All of a sudden a host of a weekly news TV program “Post Scriptum” Giorgi Gabunia went on live insulting the President of Russia Vladimir Putin, with his monologue being extremely offensive to the late parents of the Russian president including strong language in Russian.
The reaction was fast to follow. Conservative groups gathered near the building of the TV station with radical demands concerning the TV host himself and the channel “Rustavi-2” as well, specifically requesting to dismiss the general director of the station Nika Gvaramiya, arrest Giorgi Gabunia and shut down the controversial channel. Russian State Duma demanded to initiate legal proceedings against Gabunia.
Putin commented on the situation as well: “one came out and said something, pretending to be someone…Nobody knew him before and now everyone is talking about him…too much honor for him to start legal proceedings, let him broadcast on”, – the Russian president said.
Meanwhile, European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg announced its final verdict in the case that started in 2015. “Rustavi-2” was returned to the owner Kibar Khalvashi, affiliated with the authorities.
Khalvashi spent a month clearing up the channel from “untrustworthy” elements. First the general director Gvaramiya was dismissed, then other significant figures followed, which provoked a mass protest involving members of the staff. Almost all employees left the channel. It is for the first time since 1995 that “Rustavi-2” does not broadcast news.
Khalvashi called on the journalists to come back, however, they created a new TV channel “Main Channel”. The founder is Nika Gvaramiya, Mikhail Saakashvili’s follower. Yet the prosecutor’s office accused Gvaramiya of abuse of authority and financial damage to television. Tbilisi city court ruled on a judicial restraint of a bail of 40 thousand lari (about $13,5 00) and limited his right to leave the country without notifying the prosecutor’s office. Gvaramiya does not agree with the court ruling and does not intend to pay the bail. Therefore, the ending for the situation is unclear.
Another TV channel, “Pirveli”, was also facing problems as the prosecutor’s office made accusations regarding the owner’s father. Gvaramiya and “Pirveli” owner made public statements saying they are not ready to give in. Gvaramiya is ready to go to prison as he stated “freedom or prison” and that he personally will accept capitulation from the government.
Putin banned Russian airlines to fly to Georgia. He also made a recommendation to travel agencies not to plan any tours to Georgia. Russian mass media spread information that it is not safe for Russian tourists in Georgia now.
It is still rather difficult to estimate the damage, while in general it mostly comes to an unprecedented growth rate of Russian tourists coming to a stop. However, statistics regarding tourists from other countries still shows positive dynamic. 72% of Russian citizens enter Georgia via its land border and this means that cancelled flights are a problem only to insignificant number of travelers.
The number of Russians visiting Georgia dropped by 6,8% in July against the same period last year. After Russia stopped its flights to Georgia the number of tourists arriving by plane went down by 74,8% in the last week of July. However, the decrease in those arriving by air was balanced by those entering by land – the rate rose by 15,3%. Moreover, the number of Russian citizens arriving via the border between Georgia and Armenia increased by 24%.
In response to banned flights, a new social campaign with a hashtag #SpendSummerInGeorgia was launched in social networks. Georgians as well as foreigners share their personal experience of traveling in Georgia and encourage everyone to support tourism in Georgia this year.
The problems in tourism once more demonstrated that relations with Russia are unpredictable. They may pull the plug at any moment, shut down the market for agricultural products or other produce. Even more so, such precedents have been already observed before.
Attempts to rewrite history
Russian State Duma suddenly decided to discuss the issue of “genocide” of Ossetia by Georgia in 1920. Moreover, the president of Russia Vladimir Putin accused Georgia of historic occupation of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as of genocide of the people of Ossetia. This issue resulted in Tbilisi’s moderately sharp response. The country’s top officials unanimously stated that this is a pointless attempt to rewrite history.
Even though the issue is absurd and this process does not have any international legal perspective, current authorities try their best not to fall for Kremlin’s attempts to further aggravate the escalation policy, despite the fact that the phase of annexation is very close to the phase of occupation.
The situation is deteriorating due to the destructive policy of “borderization”. Near the border line there appear to be more cases of locals abducted by military groups located on the occupied territories. Moreover, the borderization of border-line villages is going on, with this process being especially traumatic to local farmers, whose land and houses are getting enclosed with barbed wire at night.
Russia has no intentions of making concessions, while its relations with Tbilisi still symbolize hands wrapped with barbed wire.