Thousands Rally Against Pro-Western President of Georgia

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007

TBILISI, Georgia, Nov. 2 -- Tens of thousands of protesters thronged Tbilisi's main avenue Friday to rail against Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, four years to the month after he was swept to power by the street uprising known as the Rose Revolution.

Waving banners and yelling "Resign!" and "Georgia Without a President!" the demonstrators gathered at the Parliament building, demanding that elections be moved up and political prisoners be released.

Led by a coalition of opposition parties, the rally was the largest such gathering since the Rose Revolution, which ousted Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003. Opposition leaders said more than 100,000 people turned out, the government put the number at 35,000, and Reuters reported up to 70,000.

Saakashvili, 39, an American-educated lawyer, swept in as a democratic reformer. He allied his country with the United States, instigated widespread restructuring of government and encouraged international investment. Under his watch, Georgia has regained control of a separatist province and lobbied for membership in the NATO alliance and the European Union.

Opponents say he's adopted some of the tactics of Soviet days. They accuse his government of abusing human rights, polarizing politics and refusing to engage in debates with the opposition.

Some protesters in the crowd Friday also complained of unemployment -- 15 percent, according to government figures -- and a cost of living that is rising while many incomes have stagnated.

"In the Rose Revolution, I was here night and day for Mikheil Saakashvili," said Temur Lomaia, 60, a doctor. "I thought the young people would change Georgia, with different minds and fresh ideas. . . . But these people have no ideas."

Like others who are dissatisfied, he said he did not favor another revolution. Many are calling for a government without a president.

David Usupashvili, chairman of the opposition Republican Party, said, "While Saakashvili declares that Tbilisi is a second Geneva and spends a lot of time and money on shows [with] expensive singers, at the same time people do not feel that their life has been improved."

Giga Bokeria, a member of Parliament and ruling party spokesman, called the protest "a normal part of democracy" and "a natural thing that happens to all reformers."

He said the government has no intention of revising the parliamentary election schedule, which was revised last year. The government is open to dialogue, he said.

The rally was planned a month ago, after the arrest of Irakli Okruashvili, a former defense minister who had accused the president of corruption and intimidation. Okruashvili abruptly recanted a few days later in a televised statement, which some people compared to a Soviet-style confession, and was released on $6 million bond.

Georgian political analyst David Darchiashvili attributed Friday's large turnout to a failure by the government to communicate with the Georgian population.

Referring to Georgia's close ties with the United States, which has invested heavily here, Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said, "Today America must decide whether it will be friends with Saakashvili or with the Georgian people."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company