Thousands rally in Georgia for Ukraine, EU
Thousands rallied in Georgia on Friday in solidarity with Ukraine on the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of the fellow ex-Soviet nation and in support of Tbilisi's European Union membership.
Some 30,000 demonstrators gathered outside parliament waving Georgian, Ukrainian and EU flags, according to an estimate by an AFP reporter.
The rally was organised by several opposition parties and Georgia-based Ukrainian activists.
Crowds chanted "Glory to Ukraine!" after Georgian and Ukrainian anthems were performed at the demonstration.
"We, citizens of Georgia, political parties, civil society and Ukrainians living here unite today in solidarity with the heroic Ukrainian people," the organisers said in a statement.
Addressing the rally by video link from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko thanked Georgians for their support.
"We defend today Europe and its values," he said to applause from the crowd, adding he was certain both Ukraine and Georgia would become "EU members".
"Ukraine's victory is also a victory for Georgia and the whole civilised World. Ukrainians are today shedding their blood for all of us," one of the demonstrators, 20-year-old student Rati Gotua, told AFP.
Another demonstrator, agronomist Ani Shotadze, 54, said: "The future of Georgia and Ukraine is within the EU and Russia will have to forget its imperial dreams."
- 'No room for diplomatic relations' -
The rally was held amid growing discontent over what critics say is the Georgian government's backsliding on democracy which undermines the Black Sea nation's EU bid.
In a statement on Friday, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said: "The war, which Russia has begun, is totally unacceptable and from its very first day Georgian people stand with the people of Ukraine."
But his government has faced strong criticism from civil activists and the opposition for allegedly cultivating anti-Ukrainian sentiment and derailing Georgia from its pro-Western path.
Garibashvili has defended his "balanced" Russia policy as aimed at ensuring "peace and stability".
He has accused the opposition and "some forces in Kyiv and in the West" of trying to "drag Georgia into the war."
Georgia's figurehead President Salome Zurabishvili on Friday expressed regret that the Georgian government was "trying to justify its supposedly 'neutral and balanced position.'"
Earlier this week, ruling Georgian Dream party's MP Irakli Zarkua said the party's parliamentary faction has turned down an invitation from Kyiv to visit Ukraine on the anniversary of the Russian invasion.
"When high-ranking officials of Ukraine call our state to open a second front... I think that this leaves no room for diplomatic relations," he told journalists.
Officials in Kyiv and in the United States have repeatedly rejected as false such claims by Georgia's ruling party leaders.
In May, Kyiv recalled its ambassador from Georgia after Tbilisi refused to let a group of volunteer fighters and medics travel to Ukraine.
Last year, the EU deferred Tbilisi's membership application -- while granting candidacy to Ukraine and Moldova -- saying Tbilisi must improve its democratic record before it is put on a formal membership path.