TBILISI (AFP)–Georgia’s opposition boosted pressure Monday on President Mikheil Saakashvili with round-the-clock protests outside his office as up to 20,000 rallied for a fifth day to demand his resignation.
“We have come closer to the president to tell him he must leave, that he must take the country out of this crisis,” opposition leader Irakli Alasania, a former Georgian envoy to the UN, told protesters outside the presidency.
Thousands of opposition supporters have been protesting against Saakashvili since Thursday in the biggest anti-government demonstrations since a war with Russia last August.
About 8,000 protesters broke off from the main rally outside parliament Monday and marched on the presidency, where they set up stages and blocked entrances to the building. Vowing to stay until Saakashvili resigns, protesters later erected about a dozen small tents for shelter overnight.
Large-scale rallies will continue daily outside parliament, organizers said.
Opposition leaders also announced an effort to shame Saakashvili by setting up mock jail cells across the capital Tbilisi.
“Tbilisi will be turned into a city of cells, where prominent figures and politicians will be sitting until Saakashvili resigns,” said opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, whose brother Giorgi Gachechiladze has spent nearly three months in a mock cell in protest against the president.
Opposition leaders have sought to ratchet up pressure on Saakashvili through a campaign of “civil disobedience,” including marches to the office of the president and state broadcaster that paralyzed traffic in the city centre.
The number of protesters dropped significantly from some 60,000 on Thursday to fewer than 4,000 over the weekend, but rose again on Monday as the opposition vowed its new wave of actions.
Protesters have also permanently blocked Tbilisi’s main street, Rustaveli Avenue, and organizers have vowed to spread demonstrations across the country.
Opponents accuse Saakashvili of mishandling the conflict with Russia and of becoming increasingly autocratic since he came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, a peaceful public uprising.
Saakashvili has rejected calls for his resignation, instead offering the opposition talks on democratic reforms.
Police have kept a low profile during the rallies and made no moves to interfere with demonstrators.
Authorities want to avoid a repeat of events in November 2007 when riot police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters, damaging Saakashvili’s reputation as a democratic reformer.
Although both the government and opposition have promised to keep the demonstrations peaceful, tensions are running high and some fear the protests could turn violent.
Tensions flared late Saturday when the opposition blamed the authorities for an attack by unidentified assailants on their protest venue that left equipment smashed and banners torn.
Police, however, said the protesters had assaulted municipal street cleaners when they arrived to sweep the area.