July 8, 2019 / 9:22 AM / 13 days ago

Russia calls tirade against Putin on Georgian TV a ploy to derail ties

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia on Monday condemned an obscenity-laden tirade against President Vladimir Putin on a Georgian TV station, calling it a shameful and unacceptable provocation by radical political forces intended to damage relations.

FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council in Moscow, Russia July 5, 2019. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

The Rustavi 2 TV station on Sunday broadcast a program during which the host, Giorgi Gabunia, speaking in Russian, used offensive language to personally insult Putin and the Russian leader’s late parents.

Gabunia also called Putin “an occupier” and said he and his “slaves” should get out of Georgia, a reference to the presence of Russian troops in two breakaway Georgian regions that are backed by Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the outburst was unworthy of the Georgian people and showed that authorities in the ex-Soviet republic lacked the will to suppress extreme political forces.

Russia’s foreign ministry said the incident was “a clear example of where rabid anti-Russian sentiment leads”.

“We regard this as another overt provocation by radical Georgian forces designed to undermine Russian-Georgian relations,” it said in a statement.

Gabunia’s tirade was also condemned inside Georgia.

Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze called it a grave threat to security, and the foreign ministry said it was aimed at destabilizing the situation.

The small nation in the southern Caucasus, an ally of the United States, fought and lost a short war against Russia in 2008.

The two countries have not had diplomatic ties since, and Russia went on to recognize the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russian troops are now garrisoned.

Russian influence in Georgia is therefore politically sensitive, with the opposition accusing the ruling Georgian Dream party of being too meek towards Moscow.

POLITICAL CRISIS

Relations came under fresh strain two weeks ago when anti-Kremlin protests erupted in Tbilisi over a visit by a Russian lawmaker who addressed parliament from the speaker’s chair in Russian.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili blamed Moscow for the unrest that followed, in which dozens of protesters and journalists were injured, suggesting a “fifth column” loyal to Moscow had stirred up the trouble.

Many protesters said they were angry about the continued presence of Russian troops in the breakaway regions.

The Kremlin responded to the unrest by suspending passenger flights between the two countries, a move that threatens to hurt Georgia’s tourist industry since over 1 million Russians visit each year.

FILE PHOTO: Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze addresses the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/File Photo

Russian authorities have also tightened controls on Georgian wine imports, a step that could inflict further economic damage.

Dozens gathered outside Rustavi 2’s Tbilisi headquarters on Sunday night to protest against Gabunia’s broadcast.

Some of them held posters saying “We want stability!” and several journalists working for the channel were attacked by people in the crowd, prompting the network to suspend broadcasts until Monday morning.

Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and by Andrey Kuzmin and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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