Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hundreds Injured in Tbilisi Clashes

APProtesters getting soaked as security forces fire a water cannon into a crowd of thousands of people at the parliament building in Tbilisi on Wednesday.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili blamed Russia on Wednesday for orchestrating six days of mass protests against him, hours after riot police beat and fired tear gas at opposition demonstrators.

He also said Georgia had recalled its ambassador to Moscow and would expel several Russian diplomats from Tbilisi.

"Georgia is facing a very serious threat of unrest," Saakashvili said in a televised address. "High-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this."

Saakashvili also claimed that an "alternative government has even been created in Moscow to oust [him] by the end of the year," Interfax reported.

Reached Wednesday, neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Kremlin would comment on the accusations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was inappropriate to comment on "every emotional speech" by Saakashvili but that an official response would follow.

Earlier Wednesday, Saakashvili's government for the first time used force against the six-day mass demonstrations, sending in riot police against protesters calling for the president's resignation.

"We cannot let our country become a stage for dirty geopolitical escapades by other countries," Saakashvili said. "Our democracy needs a firm hand by the authorities."


Shakh Aivazov / AP
Riot police officers advancing down Tbilisi's main avenue toward a rally of anti-government protesters on Wednesday.
Protesters later regrouped in Tbilisi's Old Town and were again dispersed by riot police. Around 360 people were taken to hospitals, officials said, and 109 remained hospitalized Wednesday evening.

Georgia's human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, told reporters that he was among those beaten by police. "Although I told them that I am a defender of human rights, they told me 'This is precisely why the beating is so harsh,'" he said.

Meanwhile, a Georgian television station regarded as pro-opposition went off the air after riot police entered its headquarters.

The Imedi television station had carried statements by opposition leaders and broadcast footage of police breaking up protests Wednesday. The authorities see it as the key opposition mouthpiece.

Imedi ended its broadcasts after its announcer said riot police had broken into its headquarters.

Saakashvili has flatly rejected the protesters' call for early parliamentary elections, but the government's use of force to put down the demonstrations has inflamed passions further in the volatile former Soviet republic.

"Saakashvili's regime showed us that it is in no way different from the Communist regime whose soldiers beat their citizens with shovels in the same place," billionaire business tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili said, the Kavkaz Press news agency reported.

Patarkatsishvili — who said last week that he would finance Georgian opposition parties — confirmed that he had sold his 51 percent stake in Imedi to News Corp., which acquired a 49 percent stake in the holding last year.

Opposition leaders said the actions by Saakashvili, a staunch U.S. ally who wants to join NATO, proved their accusations that he was authoritarian and corrupt.

"The authorities have used weapons against peaceful demonstrators, and therefore the authorities will get what they deserve from the people," opposition leader Kakha Kukava said, Interfax reported.

Relations between Georgia and Russia were already at all-time lows. Saakashvili's desire to join NATO and his drive to regain sovereignty over two breakaway pro-Russian provinces have angered Moscow, which last year cut all transport links.

General Alexei Maslov, chief of Russia's Ground Forces, said Wednesday with regard to the two provinces — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — that non-peacekeeping Russian units would be removed by the end of 2007, Interfax reported.

But Saakashvili supporters continued to see Moscow's hand behind the troubles.

"Russia has launched a wide-scale attack against Georgia," Georgian Parliament Minister Givi Targamadze said on television. Opposition members had "sold their motherland for a specific price," he added.

Opposition leaders, who have not questioned Saakashvili's pro-Western line, called the accusations baseless and laughable. They said the Georgian Interior Ministry was responsible for the "wild" accusations of Russian intervention.

Analysts, too, questioned whether Moscow was fomenting unrest.

"This is hogwash," said Alexei Malashenko, senior expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Russia has neither levers nor opportunities to influence the situation."

Malashenko said Saakashvili was blaming Russia in an effort to lure the United States into throwing its support behind him in the escalating standoff.

If there is anything that the opposition and Saakashvili agree on, it is the need to counter Russia's efforts to project influence on this republic, Malashenko said

"Who would be a pro-Russian figure Moscow could count on? [Giorgi] Khaindrava?" Malashenko asked rhetorically, referring to Georgia's former minister for conflict resolution.

Any tangible interference by Russia would prompt the opposition to abandon its efforts to challenge Saakashvili and rally behind him to counter the threat from its larger neighbor to the north, he warned.

Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the World Security Institute. said the Kremlin would be best advised to wait and see who comes out on top in the struggle and then play its hand accordingly.

"If there is a split and multiple centers of power emerge, then Moscow can play on this, supporting one or another," Safranchuk said.

In the short term, tensions are likely to remain high after the authorities' strong-arm tactics against the protesters.

Earlier in central Tbilisi, police dressed in black and wearing balaclavas repeatedly beat and punched protesters, witnesses said. Clouds of tear gas filled the area, choking the crowds.

"Only a fascist power could do this," Nana Abuladze, 56, said between bouts of vomiting.

Reuters, MT, AP