Ben Aris in Berlin -
Georgia's opposition is planning a mass rally in front of the parliament buildings Friday, November 2 and observers fear clashes with police are possible after the government secretly threw the leader of the opposition, Irakly Okruashvili, out of the country the previous night.
By 10am local time an estimated 7,000 people had already gathered outside the parliament building and a total of 100,000 are expected, according to the opposition. Officials say they expect at least 20,000-30,000 to demonstrate, making this the biggest rally since the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003.
Demonstrators are calling for presidential powers to be trimmed, early elections and a return to the previous constitution.
Roadblocks have been set up around the capital to prevent demonstrations from arriving from the regions and there are reports the government has been deploying troops to bases outside the capital.
Georgian Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili has already called for a general strike starting Friday. "We urge all citizens to go on strike and express their solidarity with the protesters, who will gather near the parliament building in Tbilisi tomorrow," he told a press briefing on Thursday, according to Interfax. "Tomorrow Saakashvili must tell us when he will resign together with his no-quality tribe."
Georgian opposition leaders met with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichanbaut in Tbilisi on Thursday to lay out their demands and ask for support.
"We have laid out our vision of a parliamentary election and an election code. This is the demand of the people who will gather on November 2 not to discuss issues concerning the election code, but to change the power," one of the Georgian united opposition leaders, Georgy Tsagareishvili, told journalists after the meeting, reported Interfax.
Thorns of Rose Revolution start to prick
It has been a bad week for Georgian politics. Saakashvili faced down Russia on Wednesday after Russian peacekeepers disarmed Georgian troops in Ganmukhuri. He followed this by declaring the Russian general Sergei Chaban, who commands the peacekeeping forces, as persona non grata in Georgia on the same day.
The Russian Foreign Ministry called Georgia's actions a provocation on its website on Thursday. "The new action of Georgia, with the involvement of top-ranking officials, confirmed that the CIS collective peacekeeping force is being provoked, the unwillingness to resolve problems through peaceful negotiations and the threat to use force, including military force," the press department of the ministry said in a report on its website Thursday. "There is no doubt that the conduct of Georgian officials, including President Mikheil Saakashvili, in the course of that incident was meant for domestic consumption to a large extent."
Saakashvili has also becoming increasingly heavy handed with the opposition, which in turn is becoming increasingly outspoken. Saakashvili ordered the deportation of his main political rival, former defence minister and leader of the Movement for United Georgia, Irakly Okruashvili, on the eve of the rally. Okruashvili was secretly shipped out and landed in Munich, Germany, "because President Saakashvili is afraid of him," opposition leaders claimed.
The showdown began on September 25 when Okruashvili accused Saakashvili of attempting to organize the murder of businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili and ordering Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili to "punish" opposition deputy Valery Gelashvili, who had criticized the president in a televised interview.
Two days later, the Georgian police arrested him on corruption charges. Okruashvili denied the charges and was released on October 9 on a bail of 10m lari. He announced he was retiring from politics on October 11, but opposition leaders said he did so under extreme pressure from the government.
This morning a motorcade of 500 cars and buses carrying opposition activists was on its way to the Georgian capital ahead of the rally slated to start at 1pm local time. Police prevented more demonstrators from travelling to the capital, by taking away keys and driving licenses from van drivers in the towns of Ozurgeti, Gori and Zugdidi, Interfax reported. However, some 1,000 cars had arrived in the capital by Thursday night ahead of the rally and more private cars are reportedly arriving to the capital.
One of the leaders of Georgia's united opposition Gubaz Sanikidze told the Imedi radio station in a telephone conversation that, "traffic police and provocateurs from the ruling party are everywhere, standing in our way, stopping cars, taking away driving licenses and car keys."
The authorities have closed Rustaveli avenue, where the Georgian parliament building is situated and some 100,000 demonstrators are due to meet, according to the opposition leaders.
According to some reports, the authorities have been deploying troops outside the capital. Some 15 trucks with soldiers arrived at the Krtsani military base near the capital, according to reports in the local media.
The opposition has been calling on the US to intervene on their behalf, but Washington has backed away from the whole fracas. Saakashvili has taken an aggressive line with Moscow, relying on support from the US.
However, according to bne sources in Washington, President George Bush's administration is getting cold feet and is very unhappy with Saakashvili's increasingly hard line and heavy-handed tactics. According to bne's sources, Washington has been pulling back in recent months, taking the rug out from under Saakashvili's feet in the process.
The US does not see itself as a mediator in the dialogue between the Georgian government and the opposition, US Deputy Secretary of State Daniel Fried told reporters in Tbilisi on Thursday evening, Interfax reported.
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