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Pro-Russian extremists burn flag of Europe from Georgian Parliament

14 March 2023
Members and supporters of Alt Info burn the flag of Europe after ripping it from the parliament. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

The violent Georgian extremist group, Alt Info, have taken down and burnt the flag of Europe hanging outside the Georgian parliament.

The demonstration on Tuesday by the group, which preaches far-right and pro-Russian views, appeared to be a reaction to the mass pro-Western and anti-government demonstrations last week against the now-defunct foreign agent legislation. 

Several hundred supporters of Alt Info, overwhelmingly men, marched from Giorgi Saakadze Square to the parliament building. One of the demands voiced at the rally was a referendum on the Georgian Dream-supported foreign agent law.

After congregating outside Parliament, the crowd brought down the EU flag and tore it apart, before setting it on fire unimpeded by the scant police presence. Protesters attempted to raise the Georgian national flag in its place, erecting it to half-mast.

A new European flag was raised by police shortly after protesters dispersed. 

The protesters replaced the flag of Europe with a Georgian flag, as police watched on. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Georgian Dream introduced a ₾1,000 ($390) fine for desecrating EU or NATO symbols in 2021 following a similar incident. Alt Info tore down the EU flag a day after attacking journalists and activists on 5 July 2021, after police cleared the space in front of parliament from liberal activists. 

While the Interior Ministry vowed on Tuesday to identify and fine those who took down the flag, the government responded to Tuesday’s flag burning by largely blaming the protesters against the foreign agent law.

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In an address soon after the incident, the speaker of parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, condemned the burning of the flag while adding that ‘radicalism breeds radicalism’. 

Riot police deployed water cannons, pepper spray, and tear gas during the protests against the foreign agent law. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Papuashvili said that recent anti-government protesters had also violated law by defacing the Parliament building and breaking windows

When supporting the passage of the foreign agent law, Papuashvili's party repeatedly described civil groups critical of the government as ‘extremists’ while accusing European and American donors of financing ‘extremism’ in Georgia. 

[Read more on OC Media: Georgian Dream hits out at ‘spies’ and Western-funded ‘extremism’] 

Earlier on Tuesday, party chair Irakli Kobakhidze claimed again that riot police were confronted by 'extremist youth wings of the radical opposition' during the 7–9 March protests. 

The incident also happened as Georgian PM Irakli Gharibashvili hosted EU delegations to Eastern Partnership and Central Asian countries in Tbilisi within an informal ‘ambassadorial’ event to discuss ‘Georgia’s European integration’. 

Police later hoisted a new flag of Europe after the protesters left. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

‘Fuck that West!’

During the demonstration, leaders of Alt Info, as well as the group’s nationally broadcast TV channel, voiced numerous anti-Western and homophobic comments.

‘Fuck that West! Fuck that European Union! Fuck that NATO!’, Zurab Makharadze, one of the group’s leaders chanted during the march to the Parliament. ‘Georgia won’t be fighting in someone else’s war!’, he added, a reference to a government-supported conspiracy theory that there were Western attempts to force Georgia to go to war with Russia.

‘Where the hell are those brainwashed people who threw Molotov cocktails at the police?’, Makharadze asked, referring to violent clashes with police during anti-government protests around the same place during 7–9 March. 

‘If these people are coming to power, we’ll come out, and not just with bare hands, and we’ll fuck them up!’, Makharadze said. 

Georgian Orthodox archpriest Spiridon Tskipurishvili also recited a prayer in front of the crowd, ending with the Lord’s Prayer as the crowd knelt on the steps of Parliament. 

Zaza Bibilashvili, a government critic, reported that Alt Info members threw a rock at the BGI Legal law firm office located on Rustaveli Avenue during the march, injuring the hand of his coworker. Like numerous offices throughout Tbilisi, BGI Legal had the Ukraine flag unfurled on their balcony. Bibilashvili is a senior partner of the firm.

Alt Info had originally gathered outside their offices in the Saburtalo District of Tbilisi to confront an expected demonstration organised by Davit Katsarava, the leader of the Georgian anti-Russian group, Power in Unity.

Davit Katsarava at an anti-government protest in Tbilisi in November 2019. Photo: OC Media.

Katsarava had vowed to retaliate against Alt Info after members of the group allegedly attacked his wife’s car while she and their child were inside. He later reported that the Interior Ministry was investigating the threats. 

Alt Info has a history of violent extremism, including organising attacks on journalists and activists during the 5 July 2021 aborted Pride march.

[Read more on OC Media: Homophobic mob celebrates on Tbilisi streets after Pride march cancelled

Then–Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria recommended at the time that the authorities criminally prosecute Archpriest Tskipurishvili as well as Zurab Makharadze for their role in inciting the violence.