Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
Tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets of Tbilisi today, April 9 to demand the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili. The large turnout - estimated at over 100,000 - makes the rally a serious challenge to Saakashvili.
People gathered at six meeting points in the Georgian capital before marching to the parliament building, chanting "Misha, step down!" At the time of writing, the demonstration was passing off peacefully and the government is taking a wait-and-see approach after the PR disaster it made of the previous popular protest in November 2007, which ended in violent clashes between the police and protesters.
Under a banner proclaiming, "People for Saakashvili's Resignation," opposition leaders addressed the crowd outside the parliament. "We demand that Mikheil Saakashvili voluntarily abdicate his presidential duties, hand over power and call early elections," opposition leader Davit Magradze told the crowd. "This is the will of the people and Saakashvili must obey it."
Former UN ambassador, Irakli Alasania, said Saakashvili had abandoned the democratic values that brought him to power. "The whole world is watching us now. We are here to show our government and other countries that this is the only way to have real change," Alasania said.
There are not yet any signs of violence among the demonstrators. The Georgian government is reported to have imported rubber bullets and batons from Russia and Ukraine, but in the event, the police presence was relatively small.
A strong police reaction is unlikely unless the crowd brings the city to a standstill. Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told AFP that the government wanted to avoid any clashes. "There will be no direct confrontation between police and protesters. We will have maximum tolerance," he said.
A statement from Democratic Movement-United Georgia, led by former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, says 60 of its supporters were arrested early in the morning in eastern Georgia. However, the Georgian Interior Ministry denied the claims.
The rally's organisers have said they plan a week of protests against the government, with some hoping that the unrest will continue until mid-May. If the opposition is able to express its discontent with the regime without the protest erupting into violence, this will be a positive sign for the democratic regime in Georgia. The opposition is, however, unlikely to achieve its objective of ousting President Saakashvili.
Speaking to journalists earlier in the day, parliamentary majority leader Petre Tsiskarishvili was adamant that the rallies would not force Saakashvili out of office. "We are ready for the dialogue, but we will not discuss the resignation of President Saakashvili. We also will not discuss the holding of early parliament and presidential elections," he said. "The opposition wants to change the Georgian administration with rallies and disturbances, but it won't succeed."
Saakashvili had called for talked with the opposition, but his offer was turned down. However, this morning he unexpectedly took part in a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of anti-Soviet protests in which 20 people died alongside several hundred opposition activists who had already arrived at Rustavali Square. "We are a democratic country and people have different opinions, but one thing is absolutely clear: despite the differences in our opinions and our different standpoints, we have one motherland," RFE/RLquotes Saakashvili as saying.
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