Protesters rally outside Georgia's parliament in Tbilisi as they demand the resignation of Georgian Interior Minister Georgy Gakharia. Inset photo: AFP / Yuri Kadobnov

A “filthy occupier” and “walrus’ c**t”. That is how a Georgian television host described Russian President Vladimir Putin during a live broadcast, further aggravating an ongoing diplomatic crisis between the two neighboring countries. 

The incident came after several weeks of violent anti-Russian protests in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, which caused Russian authorities to put a ban on direct flights between the two countries.

The insults uttered by Rustavi-2 TV’s anchor Giorgi Gabunia on Sunday evening made things worse, sparking immediate angry reactions in Moscow. 

Indeed, the Russian parliament urged the government to implement economic sanctions on the small Caucasian Republic in retaliation to “anti-Russian provocations”. The proposal was dismissed a few hours later by President Putin himself, “out of respect for the Georgian people”. 

Still, relations between Moscow and Tbilisi remain at their lowest point since 2008, when Moscow’s tanks rolled into Georgia and crushed its small army while defending the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

At the end of the short war, which left hundreds dead and tens of thousands internally displaced, Moscow recognized the two republics as independent of Georgia and established military bases there. 

Even though economic relations between the two countries fully resumed in 2013, anti-Kremlin sentiment over the occupied territories has not gone away. 

This ill-feeling resurfaced again early in June when anti-Russian protests were staged in Tbilisi as a Russian legislator visited the Georgian parliament. Thousands of protesters have been picketing in front of the parliament since then, demanding that the Russian “occupiers” leave and that a snap election be held. 

Dimitri Avaliani, editor at the Caucasus-focused news outlet JAMnews, said the crisis was long expected, given growing public discontent about the ruling party. “Georgian Dream”, which has led the country since 2012, has been accused of being overly friendly with Moscow.

“When the government invited a Russian official to the parliament as an honored guest, that was the last straw,” Avaliani told Asia Times. 

To make things worse, Georgian police cracked down violently on the protesters, using rubber bullets and tear gas, which fuelled further unrest. Now the opposition is calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia.

Georgian opposition supporters take part in a march in Tbilisi demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who they accuse of using excessive force against rally outside parliament on June 20. Photo: Shota Nozadze / Sputnik / AFP

The protests led to Moscow implementing a ban on direct flights between the two countries. The move was aimed at preserving the safety of Russian citizens against mounting “Russophobia”, but it has also inflicted a hard blow to the Georgian tourism sector.

More than one million tourists visit Georgia every year, according to esteems, and the ban could cause losses of many hundreds of millions of dollars, which would be a significant blow to the local economy, depending how long the ban remains in place.

Following Gabuia’s insulting statement, Russian parliamentarians urged the government to double down with a ban on wine and water imports from Georgia, as well as freezing bank transfers from Russia to Georgia.

The proposal would have a devastating effect on the Georgian economy, if implemented, but was turned down by Putin shortly after. “I wouldn’t introduce sanctions against Georgia out of respect for its people,” he said in a briefing on Tuesday. “For the sake of restoring ties, I won’t do anything to hurt our relations,” he added.  

Putin’s statement came a few hours after Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili asked Moscow to restrain from imposing sanctions. She also had condemned Gabunia’s performance, calling it as a “provocation” orchestrated by radicals against Georgia’s interests. “Our peaceful policies are the only way to preserve stability in the region,” she stressed.

Public apology

The diplomatic uproar led to Rustavi-2 TV issuing a public apology for the host’s behavior and he was suspended from going on air for two months. 

Avaliani, however, argued that the Georgian government’s reaction to the incident was illegitimate and as bad as threats from Russian officials. “Condemning a statement made by a journalist working for a private TV channel is not state officials’ business”, he pointed out.

Avaliani believes that the Georgian government is playing into Moscow’s hands by blaming the crisis on a minority radical fringe, rather than acknowledging that there may be widespread support for the TV host’s sentiment. 

“The protests are not directed by a single political force”, he pointed out. “It is a grassroots movement made of people from different sides of the political spectrum who share the aversion towards Moscow and the current Russian-friendly government.”

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