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Georgian protesters urge president to resign

Tens of thousands of demonstrators on Thursday demanded the resignation of Georgia's president,  in a rally rivaling the Rose Revolution protests that brought him to power five years ago.
Opponents of Georgia's president rally in front of the nation's parliament in Tbilisi on Thursday, accusing him of being a coward during Georgia's conflict with Russia last summer.Sergei Grits / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tens of thousands of demonstrators on Thursday demanded the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili, saying he had lost the right to lead Georgia after a humiliating war with Russia.

The peaceful demonstration outside parliament, which opposition leaders vowed would continue until Saakashvili stepped down, was reminiscent of the bloodless protests of the Rose Revolution that brought him to power five years ago. But it was far from clear whether the fragmented opposition had the necessary support to stage a similar revolt.

Some protesters raised clenched fists as they chanted, but the crowds displayed little anger and their numbers dwindled rapidly as darkness set in. Police did not intervene. Another large rally was planned for Friday.

The most bitter criticism was directed at the president's handling of the August conflict, which resulted in loss of Georgian territory as separatists and their Russian allies took full control over two breakaway Georgian regions.

The war badly strained relations between Russia and the West, particularly the United States, which has been a strong supporter of Georgia. Like the president, the opposition wants closer ties with the West, but considers the antagonism between Saakashvili and Russia's leaders to hurt Georgia's interests.

The demonstration was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of an anti-Soviet protest that was crushed by spade-wielding soldiers, resulting in 20 deaths. The 1989 protest galvanized Georgia's fight for independence.

Shouts of 'coward'
Thursday's protest follows similar demonstrations in two other former Soviet republics, Moldova and Ukraine, where opposition leaders also charge that democratically elected governments have failed to deliver on their promises of reform and prosperity.

In the Georgian capital, some protesters accused Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, of backtracking on democratic reforms and not doing enough to ease unemployment.

Saakashvili's critics also see the war as making it even more unlikely for Georgia to be offered NATO membership anytime soon. They also bristle at his close ties with some U.S. officials, seen as undermining Georgia's independence.

During the war many Georgians were humiliated by the fear shown by their president and Georgian soldiers, who fled advancing Russian forces.

At Thursday's demonstration, the word "coward" rang out again and again in describing Saakashvili.

"We don't need a coward for a president," opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze told the crowds, who responded with cheers.

Georgy Kirvalidze, 19, marched to the parliament with a group of fellow students carrying a poster made from a well-known photograph of Saakashvili in August cowering under bodyguards in anticipation of a Russian air attack.

"Our president is a coward. Cowards are always cruel," he said.

A giant stuffed teddy bear in diapers hung over the stage, a reference to Saakashvili's nickname Misha, also the standard name for stuffed bears.

Fall from grace
Georgians once widely admired Saakashvili, 41, as an energetic, pro-Western reformist, but many were disillusioned by what they describe as his authoritarian bent. Criticism of his government was all but silenced during the war, as Georgians came together in the face of the Russian invasion, but opposition has slowly galvanized in recent months.

Saakashvili, who was re-elected in 2008, has vowed to serve out his five-year term. He sought to reduce the tensions and called for unity.

"We should stick together despite different opinions," he said in a statement. "We must continue to develop as a democratic country."

In the late afternoon, several thousand protesters broke off and marched to the headquarters of the national television station to demand that the protest be broadcast live nationwide.

They won agreement for the protest to be shown on the evening news and for opposition leaders to participate in a late-night talk show, which Gachechiladze later told the crowd could be considered a success.

No police action
Gachechiladze, who ran against the president last year, said opposition leaders would spend the night on the street. He said those who were tired should go home but urged some supporters to stay and keep the main avenue blocked to traffic. About 1,000 remained late Thursday.

Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said the protesters could stay as long as they liked. "We won't disperse them," he said.

There was no visible police presence around the rally, but an estimated 200 helmeted riot police were seen gathered inside the parliament building. Riot police also guarded the president's residence across the river.

The protesters' tactics echoed those adopted in 2003 by Saakashvili, who led weekslong demonstrations after a fraudulent election and eventually forced out his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.

While opposition to Saakashvili is growing, many Georgians say they are not ready for more political upheaval. And some continue to support the president, who has presided over substantial economic growth.

His opponents say Georgia needs to restore relations with Russia, which they say is impossible under Saakashvili, who has made an enemy of Moscow.

'He spoiled everything'
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said he would refuse to deal at all with Saakashvili, whom Russian leaders depict as unbalanced.

"We want normal relations with Russia, not war," said Tira Guledani, 70. "We lived well with Russia. He spoiled everything."

But Igor Khuchua, 45, a Saakashvili supporter who did not attend the rally, said this criticism was unfair. For relations to improve, he said, "first Russia has to have a change of government and become democratic."

Several opposition leaders turned against Saakashvili after the war, including former parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, one of Saakashvili's closest allies, and Irakli Alasania, who was Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations.

In his speech to demonstrators, Alasania accused Saakashvili of curbing the independence of Georgia's courts and media.

He called for the election of a new president with broader popular support. "Only then will Georgia become strong and prosperous," Alasania said.

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