Georgia's Saakashvili refuses to quit, wants talks with opposition
Tbilisi/Moscow - Georgian President Miheil Saakashvili on Friday refused to quit, despite around 100,000 protestors nationwide demanding he leave his job. "The government is ready for a dialogue with all political powers, moderate or radical," Saakashvili said in a national television address.
Georgia's opposition kicked off mass demonstrations against Saakashvili on Thursday, accusing the president of leading the Caucasus nation into a disastrous war against Russia in August, and of using police and national security forces to repress domestic dissent.
Saakashvili has from time to time offered to discuss Georgia's difficult economic and political situation with his critics, but in the past the opposition has rejected the offers as insincere.
Public discontent with Saakashvili, less than a year ago still widely popular in Georgia, accelerated after last year's war with Russia led to the total loss of the Georgian provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Both statelets subsequently declared independence. Moscow has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, and maintains combat troops in both locations.
"Saakashvili has undermined the reputation of Georgia, and he has divided our land," said Levan Gachechiladze, a former presidential candidate.
Now an opposition leader, Gachechiladze estimated the size of the anti-Saakashvili crowd in Tbilisi at 150,000 participants. Independent observers put the size of the demonstration at some 80,000.
Demonstrations involving tens of thousands of provincial anti-Saakashvili protestors also took place in Batumi, Poti, and other Georgian cities, according to Georgian news reports.
"Misha, get out!" chanted the crowd at some locations.
Saakashvili's public reaction to the demonstrations thus far has been mild, with the Georgian leader telling reporters he viewed the marches as proof of the country's support freedom of speech and expression.
The Saakashvili administration in November 2007 unleashed police on similar anti-government demonstrations, citing the marches' alleged threat to public order, and violation of public disturbance law.
Some Saakashvili critics argued the 2007 police assault on generally peaceful protestors recalled a Soviet repression of a Georgian nationalist demonstration in April
1989 killing 20 marchers.
Saakashvili came to power in 2003 after mass demonstrations in Tbilisi forced then-president Eduard Shevarnadze from office.
Georgia's opposition in recent months has attempted to pressure Saakashvili into quitting his post, arguing the August war against Russia, and a worsening economy have made his presidency ineffective.
But Georgia's opposition is divided, lacking a true leader or an political agenda beyond kicking Saakashvili out of office.
Opposition organizers were planning to issue an "ultimatum" to Saakashvili Friday afternoon, the Interfax news agency reported.
Opposition leader David Gamkrelidze warned of possible violence were Saakasvili to continue to dismiss the protests, saying in part that "if the government keeps ignoring the demonstrations, it could lead to a people's revolution," according to an interview on the Maestro television channel.
The marches will go on until Saakashvili quits, opposition officials said.