Several thousand protesters took to the streets of Georgian capital Tbilisi for a fourth day on Sunday as tensions rose between Moscow and its ex-Soviet neighbor.
The Tbilisi protests erupted after a Russian lawmaker addressed parliament from the speaker’s seat last week, a hugely sensitive move for two countries whose ties remain tense after a brief war in 2008.
Demonstrators have gathered in front of the parliament building, flooding the capital’s main Rustavi Avenue and blocking traffic.
Some protest placards took aim at Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarch leader of the ruling party, believed by many to be the power behind the scenes in the Western-backed country of 3.7 million people.
Others slammed Russian President Vladimir Putin who in response to the protests has banned Russian airlines from flying to Georgia and Georgian air carriers travelling to Russia.
“Russia will not enslave my country again!” read one of the placards.
In a sign of the tense atmosphere, riot police were deployed outside Ivanishvili’s hilltop residence overlooking Tbilisi, according to footage broadcast by Rustavi-2, a pro-opposition television channel earlier Sunday.
The rallies have quickly morphed into a broader movement against the Georgian authorities.
The Kremlin has branded the Tbilisi protests a “Russophobic provocation” and suspended air travel from July 8, in a move criticized by many Russians.
The protesters said they were against Putin and not ordinary Russians.
“We are fighting against Putinism,” prominent Georgian novelist Lasha Bugadze said at the rally on Sunday.
“We’ve got no problems whatsoever with the Russian people, we are not xenophobes.”
Ahead of planned parliamentary polls next year, the opposition is demanding electoral reform and snap elections, hoping to capitalize on discontent with the Georgian Dream ruling party over its failure to kick-start a stagnant economy.
The first day of the protests saw a violent police crackdown that left 240 demonstrators and police officers injured. More than 300 people were arrested.
“We are fed up. Russia’s puppet Ivanishvili has usurped power in Georgia,” said Kakha Vasadze, a 28-year-old musician.
Soso Gagoshvili, a 56-year-old chemist, said Ivanishvili must go. “Oligarchic rule has no place in the 21st century,” he said.
Relations between Georgia and its Soviet-era master Russia have long been fractured over Tbilisi’s bid to join the European Union and NATO.
The confrontation culminated in a full-out war over Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August, 2008.