TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili late on Thursday called Russia “an enemy and occupier” whose “fifth column” she suggested was behind violent unrest which she warned risked dividing the ex-Soviet state.
Zurabishvili’s comments, issued in a statement, followed violent scenes in the Georgian capital Tbilisi after police used tear gas and fired rubber bullets to stop crowds from storming the parliament building.
The clashes, which Moscow blamed on radical Georgian political forces whom it accused of propagating anti-Russian sentiment, left dozens injured.
The crowds were angry about the visit of Sergei Gavrilov, a member of Russia’s lower house of parliament. Gavrilov was 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.
Gavrilov, president of the IAO’s General Assembly, addressed delegates in his native Russian from the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s seat on Thursday. That angered some politicians and Georgians who want Russia kept at arm’s length.
“Russia is our enemy and occupier. The fifth column it manages may be more dangerous than open aggression,” Zurabishvili posted on her Facebook page.
“Only Russia benefits from a split in the country and society and internal confrontation, and it’s the most powerful weapon today.”
Russian influence in Georgia remains a politically sensitive subject. The small country, a U.S. ally, fought and 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 regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russian troops are now garrisoned.
Zurabishvili, who was visiting Belarus, planned to cut short her official visit there due to events at home, her spokeswoman told Reuters.
Protesters say they plan to take to the streets again on Friday evening.
Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Andrew Osborn