Row erupts as veteran Russian journalist met by protests in Georgia – Vladimir Pozner says he was there to celebrate 87th birthday

Street protests broke out in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on Wednesday evening, after news that prominent Russian TV host Vladimir Pozner had arrived in the country. Now, Moscow is warning its citizens that Georgia isn’t safe.

Opposition parties criticized the visit by Pozner, a Russian-American TV host who came to prominence on Soviet news networks and has since become a regular feature on screens, hosting a show on Russia’s First Channel.

Groups including the populist United National Movement called for protests over suggestions the media star has toed a hard line against Georgia’s territorial claims to the disputed north-western province of Abkhazia. It was also argued that his trip violated coronavirus restrictions.

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Demonstrators clashed with police outside the plush Vinotel boutique resort, where Pozner was reported to be staying, as part of celebrations marking his 87th birthday, which, he told Novosti Georgia that he’d “celebrated in Tbilisi three times before.” The legendary media personality added that “I didn’t come to talk about politics, only to celebrate my birthday.”

Because of the gatherings of activists, the journalist moved to the stylish Rooms Hotel, where current nightly rates are over $100 a night. On his arrival, protesters pelted the facade of the sleek modernist retreat with eggs. “We do not plan to disperse and will be here until those who do not consider Abkhazia a part of Georgia leave our country. There will be continuous actions,” claimed Zaal Udumashvili, leader of the opposition United National Movement party, in comments to reporters.

A row has since broken out over border requirements, which are stringent for Russians seeking to enter the country. In a statement seen by Moscow’s Kommersant, the Georgian Border Police Department noted that Pozner is also a dual US citizen, but declined to reveal which passport he’d used to cross the frontier.

The tone of the protests has also taken on an international dimension. Later on Thursday, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told Russian reporters that “it is dangerous for Russian citizens in Georgia, it is simply dangerous to go there, and Russians must understand this clearly.”

The top official added that Moscow “strongly condemns the aggressive actions of extremist nationalists,” and thanked the Tbilisi police for ensuring the safety of the group. Peskov also congratulated Pozner on his birthday – suggesting he holiday at home next time.

At the same time, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili declared that the protests were illegal and said that the blame lay with former president Mikhail Saakashvili and his supporters. “The goal of the United National Movement,” he said, “and Saakashvili personally, is to destroy and harm the country and its international image.”

“This time they did it against the background of our country being partially open to tourists, which is very important for the revival of the tourism industry and the economy as a whole,” the prime minister said in a statement.

Georgia has seen waves of civil unrest in recent weeks, after a political crisis erupted when police stormed the main office of the opposition United National Movement and detained the party leader Nika Melia. Crowds of supporters attempted to stop the arrest and 21 activists were led away in handcuffs. The party was founded by Saakashvili, who seized power in 2003 as part of the so-called Rose Revolution. He ran Georgia for close to a decade before leaving the country. A number of criminal cases have since been opened against him in absentia.

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