GEORGIA'S GROWING opposition movement has pledged to launch major protests against president Mikheil Saakashvili today, on the 20th anniversary of a bloody Soviet crackdown against pro-independence demonstrators.
Mr Saakashvili's domestic popularity and international reputation were badly damaged by his brutal handling of opposition rallies in late 2007, and last year's disastrous attempt to reclaim the separatist region of South Ossetia, which prompted a swift and devastating Russian invasion.
His travails galvanised a fractious opposition and prompted former close ally and ex-parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze to form a new political party and demand his resignation.
Ms Burjanadze was alongside Mr Saakashvili during the 2003 Rose Revolution, which ousted an old guard led by long-time president Eduard Shevardnadze, and she is now seen as his most serious rival.
Several activists from Ms Burjanadze's party have been arrested in recent weeks for allegedly trying to buy guns ahead of today's rally, and Mr Saakashvili's allies have accused her and other opposition figures of taking funding from Russia.
"Saakashvili is so afraid of our unity here and abroad that he's trying to discredit us in every possible way," Ms Burjanadze said. "We won't give up - we'll force him to resign."
Mr Shevardnadze also urged his successor to resign before today, when Georgians remember 20 people killed when Soviet troops broke up a 1989 rally in the capital, Tbilisi. Georgia is the West's main ally in a volatile Caucasus region that is a vital export route for Caspian Sea oil and gas.