MOSCOW — Tensions between Russia and Georgia sharply
escalated Monday after a television host in the former Soviet
republic unleashed an expletive-laden tirade directed at President
Vladimir Putin, provoking a rebuke from the Kremlin and
condemnation within Georgia.
The on-air rant, broadcast Sunday evening, came after two weeks of
violent anti-Russian demonstrations in the Georgian capital,
Tbilisi, culminating in a Russian government ban on direct flights
between the two countries. The ban took effect
Monday, disrupting travel for thousands of passengers.
Speaking in Russian, Rustavi-2 host Giorgi Gabunia turned to the
camera to address Putin. He called the Russian leader
a “stinking occupier” and a rash of
him to “f--- off,” cursed his dead parents and promised
to defecate on his grave. Gabunia also called
Russians “slaves” and told them to immediately get out of
“These insulting remarks are totally unacceptable and deserve
condemnation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters
Monday. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it
viewed the incident “as another all-out provocation by
Georgian radical forces aimed at undermining Russian-Georgian
Ties between the neighbors are at their worst point in years. In
2008, hostilities erupted into a brief war when Russia backed the
Ossetia region, and Russian troops invaded Georgia proper.
Relations gradually got back on track, with trade and tourism
between the two fully reestablished by 2013.
But there are sharp divisions within Georgian society about what
role its much larger, politically influential northern neighbor
should play. Polls show that the majority of Georgians favor
joining NATO, which would infuriate Russia.
A riot police officer fires a tear gas canister at protesters
during a rally against a Russian lawmaker’s visit in Tbilisi,
Georgia, on June 21, 2019. (Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters)
The anti-Russian protests were sparked last month when a Russian
lawmaker, invited to address Georgia’s Parliament, delivered a
Russian-language speech from the speaker’s chair. Furious
protesters tried to storm Parliament, and police acted quickly.
Since then, protesters have staged daily demonstrations to demand
the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia over the
police crackdown, which injured several people. Russia has
blamed the protests on the United States.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili and Prime Minister
Mamuka Bakhtadze condemned Gabunia’s TV performance as
a “provocation.” Both leaders are backed by the ruling
Georgian Dream party, which has moved to forge closer ties with
Russia in recent years, angering the opposition and many ordinary
Georgians, who see Moscow as an occupier.
Russia has military bases in South Ossetia and the other breakaway
region, Abkhazia — two regions that make up a fifth of Georgia’s
The Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, said it would put
Gabunia on a wanted list and seek his extradition so he can be
tried in a Russian court, although it was not clear what he would
be charged with.
The opposition-owned Rustavi-2 channel, which was picketed by
protesters opposing the anti-Putin diatribe, went off the air for
six hours Monday after some of its workers were hurt in the
Thousands of Georgian opposition supporters protest in front of
Parliament in the capital on June 21, 2019.
Some Georgians worry that the government’s condemnation of
Gabunia’s actions could work in Moscow’s favor.
“Unfortunately, the statements released by the Georgian government
are in line with the Kremlin. This is a scary development,”
said Eto Buziashvili, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s
Digital Forensics Research Lab. “It allows the Kremlin to say:
‘See, the Georgian government agrees with us. We are friendly, but
others are undermining our relationship.’ ”
The travel blockade on all Russian and Georgian flights operating
between the countries poses a serious economic challenge to
Georgia. The southern Caucasus country, which has a population of
nearly 4 million, receives about 1 million Russian
visitors a year. Although Russian tourists will still be able to
enter Georgia by road or indirect flights, the financial blow to
Tbilisi is expected to be considerable.
Russia has said the ban, which was signed by Putin, is intended to
protect its citizens from “Russophobic hysteria.” Some Georgians
have responded to the measure by creating the social media
campaign #SpendSummerInGeorgia, hoping to attract non-Russian
tourists to visit the country’s Black Sea coast and spectacular
mountains. The U.S.
Embassy in Tbilisi joined the campaign.
Separately, the Russian Duma said Monday that it would ask the
government to ban imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, as
well as freeze money transfers between the two countries.
Georgia’s wine — a hallmark export that belongs to
tradition going back 8,000
years — is beloved by Russians, and its sale often has been
viewed as a barometer of relations between the former Soviet
Russia previously banned Georgian wine imports between 2006 and
2013 over what Moscow described as poor quality standards, but
Russians and Georgians alike largely viewed the move as politically