TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia will destroy Soviet-era monuments and change any street names which refer to its Communist past, lawmakers decided on Tuesday, passing a new law aimed at distancing the country from its former master Russia.
Ties between Russia and Georgia have soured since President Mikheil Saakashvili ousted post-Soviet leader Eduard Shevardnadze in the 2003 "Rose Revolution" and vowed to move the country out of Moscow's sphere of influence.
"Our people have been waiting for this law to be passed for 20 years and I'm proud that it is passed by this parliament," said Gia Tortladze, an opposition lawmaker who proposed the law.
The so-called Freedom Charter will set up a commission led by the Interior Ministry to identify symbols, monuments, inscriptions, street and park names "that may reflect or contain elements of Soviet or fascist ideology" and consider their removal.
The law will also prevent former KGB agents and senior Communist party officials from occupying high-ranking positions in government.
The move could annoy Moscow, which accused Georgia of "trying to erase the historical memory of its people," after the authorities blew up a towering Soviet World War Two memorial in the country's second largest city of Kutaisi in 2009.
The two neighbors went to war in August 2008, when Russia crushed an assault by Georgia's U.S.-trained military on the pro-Russian rebel region of South Ossetia, launched after skirmishes with separatists and months of Russian baiting.
Several Communist-era monuments and symbols were removed in Georgia shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Some Georgians, particularly the older generation who had close business and personal ties with Russia, resent the extent to which the relationship has soured.
Others say the relationship brought only hardship, and point to the Kremlin's backing of the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as proof of a policy of interference.
"Soviet symbols did nothing bad to people. It was the fault of the Communist authorities," said lawmaker Jondi Bagaturia.
Civil society expert David Gogishvili said it was important that Georgians understand their Soviet past and "if we decide to get rid of all material leftovers of the Soviet system, we may face a situation in which half of Tbilisi will be destroyed."
editing by Elizabeth Piper