Saturday, April 11, 2009

Georgia pres face protests

Thousands of protesters are expected to continue action on Saturday after blocking streets in the Georgian capital and vowing widespread civil disobedience on Friday as President Mikheil Saakashvili rejected opposition calls to resign. Following the biggest demonstrations against Saakashvili's rule since Georgia's August 2008 war with Russia, opposition protesters temporarily blocked main streets and marched on the president's office.

Opposition leaders vowed to continue roadblocks every day from 3pm to 9pm (11am GMT to 5pm GMT) and to expand protests nationwide until Saakashvili resigns.

"The opposition has decided to start a national disobedience campaign," Kakha Kukava, a co-leader of the opposition Conservative Party, told a crowd of 25 000 protesters in central Tbilisi.
At least 60 000 opposition supporters had rallied to call for Saakashvili's resignation on Thursday. With the number of protesters falling, opposition leaders sought to ratchet up pressure on Saakashvili by announcing the roadblocks and disobedience campaign.
Saakashvili has steadfastly refused to step down but said he was open to talks with the opposition.

"I've been listening to ultimatums every month for the last five years... My term expires in 2013," Saakashvili told journalists.

Open for dialogue

Saakashvili said he was ready for dialogue on a raft of issues, including electoral reforms and constitutional changes such as direct elections for mayors and other municipal officials.
The secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, Eka Tkeshelashvili, told reporters that police would present "no obstacles" to protesters blocking the streets and called for the opposition to sit down for talks.

"We are dedicated to a meaningful dialogue... We hope that sometime soon the opposition will have a constructive approach," she said.

The United States on Friday refrained from comment on the calls for Saakashvili, a strong ally of the administration of former president George W. Bush, to resign. "This is an internal Georgian matter," said a US State Department spokesperson, Richard Aker, after being questioned on the resignation calls.

The protests are being organised by a wide coalition of opposition groups and analysts have questioned whether organisers will be able to maintain unity. Responding to Saakashvili's offer, opposition leader Irakli Alasania said he was open to meetings as long as they are held "in a transparent way."

"Nobody is against real dialogue," said Alasania, a former Georgian envoy to the United Nations who is considered a moderate voice in the opposition. But some rejected negotiations on anything but Saakashvili stepping down. "The only thing that can be discussed with Saakashvili is his resignation," said another opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister. "We are open for transparent dialogue on how Saakashvili will resign."

Protesters had blocked the capital's main road, Rustaveli Avenue, overnight before rallying in the afternoon and then paralysing traffic in central Tbilisi by marching through the streets.
At midnight, only a few dozen protesters remained outside parliament and organisers said they had told supporters not to protest overnight.

Unpopular or not?

Opponents accuse Saakashvili of mishandling the conflict with Russia and of becoming increasingly autocratic since he came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution. Both the government and opposition have promised to keep the demonstrations peaceful, but tensions are running high and some fear the protests could spark civil unrest.

Accusing authorities of intimidation, opposition leaders said up to 10 of their activists had been beaten by unidentified assailants near the protests. Police denied any involvement by the authorities and promised to investigate any attacks. Government loyalists say Saakashvili continues to enjoy widespread support and that the opposition is looking to overturn the results of a snap presidential poll last year in which he won a second five-year term.

The Bush administration's strong backing for Saakashvili has been cited as critical factor in prompting the Georgian government last August to launch an armed campaign to regain control of the separatist region of South Ossetia. The short conflict resulted in a crushing defeat for Georgia at the hands of Russia's overwhelming military response in support of the separatists.

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