MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI, Georgia's pro-western president, last night rejected opposition demands that he resign following a day of noisy mass protests against his rule in the capital, Tbilisi, and other Georgian cities.
About 60,000 people took part in a rally outside Georgia's parliament building in Tbilisi, waving flags and chanting slogans, in what amounts to the most serious and sustained political challenge to Mr Saakashvili since last summer's disastrous war with Russia.
Opposition leaders said they would continue their protests until Mr Saakasvhili quits. They accuse him of presiding over an increasingly autocratic regime, and of unravelling many of the freedoms associated with the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought Mr Saakashvili to power.
"We have no other way out but to stand here until the end, until the Judas of Georgian politics resigns," former presidential challenger Levan Gachechiladze told the crowd. Speakers complained of government pressure on the media and judiciary, and criticised last year's lost war.
Others waved banners showing Mr Saakashvili with his alleged celebrity masseuse. Government officials have confirmed Mr Saakashvili has been treated for back problems, but the opposition claims the masseuse is a further example of the president's frivolity and decadence at a time of economic hardship.
"Today is referendum day in Georgia," said former UN ambassador Irakli Alasania, one of several senior figures to defect from Mr Saakashvili's inner circle, citing the president's serious errors of judgment.
Another former ally turned opponent, Nino Burjanadze, a potential presidential rival, said: "Georgians no longer trust him with anything."
Opposition to Mr Saakasvhili has accelerated since last year - when the president launched his ill-fated attempt to recapture the breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a punitive Russian invasion and the loss of more Georgian territory. There has also been a noticeable cooling of support towards his regime from the US and other key western backers.
Georgia's opposition, however, has its own failings. It has been frequently weak and divided, and has been unable to capitalise on Mr Saakashvili's alleged blunders. It also has no constitutional way of removing the president, who was re-elected for a second five-year term in 2008 and who made it clear yesterday he does not countenance stepping down.
"He keeps stubbornly saying he is going to stay," Zaza Gachechiladze, the editor-in-chief of Georgia's the Messenger newspaper, said yesterday.