Fighting between protestors and riot police breaks out in Tbilisi

Fighting between protestors and riot police breaks out in Tbilisi
Baton-wielding riot police attacking protestors. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews April 30, 2024

Baton-wielding riot police attacked protestors, firing rubber bullets and tear gas at thousands of demonstrators in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi late on the evening on April 30, as the authorities tried to end weeks of demonstrations against its attempt to pass a Russian-inspired "foreign agents" law.

In one video, a woman can be heard screaming as riot police wade in with their batons. In another video posted on X, clouds of tear gas can be seen rolling over the crowds in the central streets of the capital packed with protestors.

“After an absolutely inhumane amount of tear gas that nearly choked me inside a freakin building, valiant people are again back on Rustaveli Avenue to confront this Russian regime,” posted Marika Mikiashvili, who was amongst the crowds.

There were also reports of fights breaking out between police and demonstrators on Rustaveli, Tbilisi’s main central road, as the authorities tried to push back crowds.

“Heavy fights on Rustaveli; hellish amount of tear gas used; people nevertheless are back to confront the Russian regime,” posted Helen Khosharia from the scene.

Another video showed police targeting a protestor carrying an EU flag with a water cannon.

“A bus serving as a barricade; various reports of dispersed people blocking Mtkvari river embankments, various roads in Tbilisi. Many coming back to Rustaveli to fight back despite an inhumane tear gas usage,” Mikiashvili posted.

“The riot police in Tbilisi are employing excessive force against the peaceful protesters, including beatings, tear gas, and pepper spray. The situation is extremely tense,” Giorgi Revishvili, a Fulbright Scholar at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Levan Khabeishvili, an MP and chair of the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party, appeared bloodied and missing several teeth, Georgia’s Mtavari Arkhi television reported.

Several minutes before images of Khabeishvili appeared online, the UNM reported, that Khabeishvili had been ‘kidnapped’ on ‘Bidzina Ivanishvili’s personal order’, OC Media reported. 

‘At the time of his arrest, he was helping an injured citizen at the rally. The United National Movement appeals to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to ensure the physical safety of Levan Khabeishvili and release him immediately’, they wrote.

Footage also showed police attempting to rip MP Aleko Elisashvili, the chair of the Citizens Party, from the crowd before other protesters managed to save him.

President Salome Zourabichvili has called on the Minster of Internal Affairs, Vakhtang Gomelauri, to ‘immediately stop the crackdown on the peaceful protest, the use of disproportionate force, the violence against the young people who came with bare hands’.

‘It is clear that the demonstration was peaceful, there was no threat, there was nothing threatening order’, she said.

Video posted on social media showed riot police advancing on protests in a line behind shields trying to push the crowd away from the parliament building as fighting became more intense.

The riot police failed to clear the streets of the estimated 100,000 demonstrators and by 3:30am local time large crowds were celebrating their victory on Rustaveli, sigin the national anthem, according to posts on social media. 

Tensions escalating

Tensions have been escalating over the last two weeks. There have been almost non-stop protests against efforts by the ruling Georgian Dream party to push through a repressive "foreign agents" law, modelled on a similar Russian law. Police used a limited amount of pepper spray on a crowd two days ago but avoided a full-scale confrontation.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, honorary chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, ratcheted up tensions further on April 29 in a vitriolic speech to a pro-government counter rally where he blamed a Western-led “Party Of War” for all the ills Georgia has suffered in the last decade and promised a crackdown using the new law on the parliamentary opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM) that was formerly headed by ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now in jail convicted of abuse of power.

MPs did not vote on the foreign agent bill, but the second reading of the bill is due to resume on May 1.

Georgia was granted EU candidate status in December 2023, but now both Brussels and Washington have said the adoption of the foreign agents law would be detrimental to Georgia's European ambitions.

The European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the foreign agent's law and said it does not align with the values and principles of the European Union. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that Georgia’s EU membership aspirations are in danger if the bill is adopted into law on April 25.