Massive protests target Georgia's Saakashvili
The president resists demands to leave office as some wonder if revolution is in the air.
Tbilisi, Georgia — Tens of thousands of Georgians protested peacefully in front of the country's Parliament Thursday to demand the resignation of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.
At times, the demonstrations echoed the 2003 "Rose Revolution" protest movement that toppled the former regime of Eduard Shevardnadze and ushered Mr. Saakashvili into power. Opposition leaders are now demanding that Saakashvili resign by Friday.
"This is not a revolution. It is another demonstration of the Georgian people's peaceful will to seek democracy," says Salome Zourabichvili, former foreign minister and leader of the Georgia's Way party.
Yet the line between revolution and massive public protest can be murky. Ms. Zourabichvili stated earlier that the opposition wouldn't hold talks with Saakashvili until he resigned.
Saakashvili, who was reelected last year, has made no indications that he is planning to leave office before his term ends in 2013. The pro-Western leader issued a statement, however, that called for unity. "We should stick together despite different opinions. We must continue to develop as a democratic country."
The protest was held on the 20th anniversary of the April 9 massacre, during which Soviet forces killed 20 Georgians who had demonstrated against the USSR's control of the country. Georgia gained independence two years later.
Saakashvili and opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Nino Burjanadze and Levan Gachecheladze, the 2007 opposition presidential candidate, commemorated the event Thursday as roughly 30,000 people protested in front of the Parliament (opposition groups put the figure as high as 80,000).
The demonstration, Mr. Alasania says, is not evidence of another revolution. "It's not unconstitutional to ask for the president's resignation."
Unlike Zourabichvili and other opposition leaders, Alasania says he has not ruled out dialogue.
More than democratic rumbling?
Some of the lesser-known opposition parties make no bones about the revolutionary nature of Thursday's demonstration. Manana Bistzadze-Mikeladze, Chair of National Alliance for the Georgia Kingdom sees the rally as a repeat of the Rose Revolution.
"He'll step down. If not today, then next week, like in 2003," she says, adding, "with no arms, no blood. That's what we want."
Davit Darchiashvili, a National Movement member of parliament and chair of the European Integration Committee, doesn't expect the opposition to be capable of achieving a successful revolution because the times were entirely different.
"In 2003, a mafia dominated state was overthrown. That's not the case now," Mr. Darchiashvili says.
Protesters, police remain peaceful
So far, the protests have been peaceful. The Ministry of Interior – aware of sensitivities surrounding past protests – announced that it will take action only in extreme cases. Riot police are protecting government buildings, including Parliament. At one point during the protest, they were stationed outside the gates with an armored vehicle. After encounters with protesters looked as if they could get heated, the police were moved inside the gates, away from demonstrators.
Some demonstrators, like Rezo Sulava, came to the protests out of what they consider to be a patriotic duty – "because I love Georgia," he says. Although Dr. Rezo believes Saakashvili has accomplished great things for Georgia, he feels the president has run out of resources and can do no more for the country.
Other people, like taxi driver David Japaridze, are neither fans of Saakashvili nor supporters protests.
"I'm tired of protests," Mr. Japaridze says. "Things are bad here because we are changing to a capitalist society. Protests won't change anything. If they throw out Saakashvili, next year some one will throw them out. It's not democratic."