By Sarah Marcus
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 10, 2009
TBILISI, Georgia, April 9 -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in front of the Georgian Parliament on Thursday, condemning President Mikheil Saakashvili as a despot who botched last year's war with Russia and vowing to continue protesting until he resigns.
The demonstration began amid concern that public frustrations might boil over into civil unrest, but its first day ended without incident. Protesters occupying the capital's main road waved flags and chanted slogans, while riot police looked on from positions inside buildings without interfering.
Turnout appeared weaker than organizers had hoped, with the independent Caucasus Research Resource Center issuing a crowd estimate of about 53,000. The government said 20,000 to 25,000 people joined the protest. The opposition said 130,000 to 150,000 took part.
"We have no other way out but to stand here until the end, until the Judas of Georgian politics resigns," former presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze told the crowd, accusing Saakashvili of betraying the Rose Revolution, the pro-democracy street protests in 2003 that swept him into power.
Much of Georgia's fractured opposition set aside differences for Thursday's protests, which were timed to begin on a public holiday, the anniversary of a Soviet crackdown on Georgian protests in 1989 that left 20 people dead. In the afternoon, several opposition leaders stood together and called on the crowd to raise their hands en masse to support a statement demanding Saakashvili's resignation.
"Today, our economy is stalled, our freedom is trampled and our land is occupied," said Irakli Alasania, an opposition leader who quit as Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations in December. "We come together because we understand that this situation was not inevitable but resulted from the irresponsible choices of this government."
Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer who was a favorite of the Bush administration, has said he will remain in office until his term ends in 2013. Speaking to reporters at a vigil earlier in the day, he acknowledged the demonstration but indicated he would not be swayed.
"Georgia today, as never before, needs unity and firmness," he said. "We are a democratic state, and people have different opinions."
Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said the size of the protest would be a disappointment for Saakashvili's foes, adding that he doubted they would succeed in forcing the president to step down.
"They have had this aim for years, and the public are fed up with it," he said, arguing that many people question the opposition's decision to protest in the middle of an economic crisis.
At a news conference, Alasania expressed satisfaction with the turnout. He and other opposition figures, including Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of Parliament and leader of the Rose Revolution, urged the public to gather in front of Parliament again Friday afternoon.
Nino Chudalashvili, 41, a Burjanadze supporter who identified herself as unemployed, said, "Saakashvili must resign, and we will all stay here until he does so."
Saakashvili has pledged to allow the protests to continue indefinitely and made clear he is determined to avoid a repeat of the events of November 2007, when riot police clashed with protesters and seized control of an opposition television station, tarnishing his reputation as a reformer.
This time, his government invited representatives of foreign embassies to monitor events from a control room at the Interior Ministry and said Georgian police had received training in crowd control from other European countries.
Authorities said about 3,000 police, including riot units stationed inside strategic buildings, were mobilized for the demonstration. But except for a few officers seated in cruisers, they were barely visible.
"Today is an important step in the development of Georgian democracy," said Eka Zguladze, the deputy interior minister. "People expressed their views. They did so peacefully. The government behaved in a proper, democratic manner, with maximum restraint."
One complaint against the police came before the demonstration, when Burjanadze said 60 of her supporters were detained outside Tbilisi. Zguladze denied the allegation.
Fears that the protests might result in violence grew after police arrested 11 people on weapons charges in late March. Several were members of Burjanadze's party. She accused the government of waging a smear campaign against her.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Wednesday calling for restraint on all sides.