TBILISI (Times)–As leader of Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili swept to power on a wave of popular protest. Yesterday, he was the focus of public anger in the biggest street demonstration since he became President.
Tens of thousands rallied in the capital Tbilisi to back opposition demands for Saakashvili to resign over the ruinous war with Russia and what they say is a growing authoritarian streak.
Organizers claimed that at least 120,000 people filled central Rustaveli Avenue outside the Parliament, the focus of the 2003 revolution. Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze said that no more than 25,000 had taken part, while other observers put the figure at around 60,000.
Once hugely popular, the pro-Western Mr Saakashvili now divides opinion in Georgia after last summer’s defeat and occupation by the Russian army in the war for the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
EU monitors reported an increase in Russian military activity along the tense front line between Georgia and South Ossetia as the anti-Saakashvili protest got under way. Russia denied any increased troop presence, but the Kremlin would like nothing better than to see Saakashvili ousted and President Dmitri Medvedev has ruled out any contact with him.
Riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets broke up the last serious opposition challenge to Saakashvili in November 2007. Western outrage forced him to call a snap presidential election, which he won last year.
The government was determined to avoid similar scenes yesterday and police were conspicuous by their absence during the protest, which organizers had said would be peaceful. Hundreds of riot police were stationed inside the Parliament and key government buildings as a precaution, however.
Opposition leaders pledged to maintain the protest until Saakashvili stood down, as an array of different party flags fluttered above the crowds in the Spring winds. Levan Gachechiladze, the defeated opposition candidate in last year’s election, told them: “We have no other way out but to stand here until the end, until the Judas of Georgian politics resigns.”
An opposition statement gave Saakashvili 24 hours to respond to their demand. He has insisted that he will stay and appealed for national unity on a day that also marked the 20th anniversary of a Red Army massacre of 20 Georgians who were demonstrating for independence from the Soviet Union.
Saakashvili joined opposition figures at a memorial ceremony in front of the parliament before the demonstration began. He told journalists: “However different our political views and positions, we have a common motherland and we have to work hard together for freedom and a united country.”
The authorities have promised to allow the protest to continue as long as the opposition wants, provided it remains peaceful. But the extent of popular hunger for political change is difficult to gauge and many Georgians are more concerned by the impact of the economic crisis on their jobs and living standards.