TBILISI (AFP)–More than 50,000 opposition supporters rallied in a Tbilisi stadium to mark Georgian Independence Day on Tuesday, prompting authorities to cancel a traditional military parade for fear of clashes.
Protesters packed the huge football stadium and planned a march through the streets of the capital of the former Soviet republic.
The rally marked the culmination of over a month of opposition protests aimed at forcing the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
“We will fight for this country, Saakashvili cannot stay president,” said Nino Burjanadze, the former parliamentary speaker who is now one of Saakashvili’s most vehement opponents.
“The only thing we have to discuss with the authorities is their resignation,” she added.
The Georgian opposition has been staging daily protests since April 9 in the biggest demonstrations against Saakashvili’s rule since Georgia fought a brief war with Russia last August.
Opponents accuse Saakashvili of mishandling the conflict with Russia and of becoming increasingly autocratic since he came to power after the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
In the stadium on Tuesday, the crowd sang the national anthem and observed a minute of silence for those who died during the August war, in which Georgia lost a bid to re-exert control over its two separatist regions.
“Saakashvili must leave because he ceded our territories to the Russians,” said Natela Urashvili, a 49-year-old dentist who attended the protest.
Demonstrators planned to march down the capital’s main avenue, on a holiday that has traditionally been marked by a military parade. The Georgian defence ministry said the parade this year was cancelled.
Saakashvili attended a ceremony to inaugurate a memorial to Georgian soldiers who died during the fighting in August.
The Georgian leader has rejected the resignation calls, instead offering talks on democratic reforms, and has suggested that Russia is financing the campaign against him.
The May 26 holiday marks the date that Georgia declared independence from Russia in 1918 and started a short-lived republic. It is one of two main patriotic holidays in Georgia.