Tens of thousands hit Tbilisi streets in 'largest-ever' rally on eve of election (PHOTOS, VIDEO)
The Georgian capital was strewn with blue colors Saturday as the South Caucasian country's parliamentary campaign comes to a climax.
“One of my promises has already come true: all of Georgia is standing united today,” opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili told tens of thousands people gathered at central Freedom Square to show their support for him. “All Georgia tells the authorities…”
“…leave!” responded the crowd.
Supporters of the Georgian Dream opposition political party attend a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Irakli Gedenidze)
“The authorities cannot pretend they did not know what happens in our prisons,” continued the billionaire tycoon, referring to a recent torture scandal that led to the resignations of several top officials and left President Mikhail Saakashvili playing spin-doctor for himself at the UN General Assembly.
Reports on the rally's turnout vary, with Russia's RIA Novosti agency estimating the demo to be 200,000 strong, while the multinational channel MTRK MIR says 300,000 people were in attendance. MIR remarks that Tbilisi's last most massive rally was held in 2010, and gathered around 100,000 people.
Supporters of the Georgian Dream political party shout slogans during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
Tycoon-turned-politician Ivanishvili founded his public movement, Georgian Dream, in December 2011. In April 2012, it transformed into an opposition coalition, called Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia. The current election is generally viewed as a struggle between billionaire Ivanishvili, whose wealth at $6.4 billion equals nearly half of Georgia's economic output, and President Mikhail Saakashvili.
Saakashvili’s role in Georgian history remains highly controversial. In its "Doing Business 2012" report, the World Bank named Georgia a "top reformer." According to that assessment, the South Caucasus country, which serves as an important transit route for oil and gas to the West, showed an astounding improvement since 2005 in terms of the ease of doing business, climbing from 112th to 16th place.
Supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream Coalition shout slogans at an election rally in Tbilisi September 29, 2012. (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)
But the opposition has little praise to spare for the leader. Nino Burdzhanadze, the ex-chairperson of the Georgian Parliament and Saakashvili’s former ally, claims that "we have less democracy today than before the revolution", as Spiegel quotes her. Like many others, Burdzhanadze accuses the president of authoritarian dictatorship that has suppressed the opposition, while engaging the country in all-around corruption and money laundering.
Saakashvili, in his turn, says the Georgian opposition are simply Kremlin agents.
Ivanishvili has taken great pains to deny the claim. During the rally, he said he did not go to politics after some foreign powers told him so, but because he could not come to terms with the escalating poverty and injustice that are choking the country.
"Saakashvili's system must be destroyed. The fate of the country is being decided at these elections," Ivanishvili told the rally, promising to create “a truly democratic country free of violence or fear.”
Georgia's opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the leader of the Georgian Dream political party gestures during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
A parallel opposition demonstration was held in Georgia’s second largest city, Kutaisi. Rally organizers say tens of thousands people are there.
Ivanishvili’s party, whose platform seems to be centered on displacing the incumbent president, is expected to come out as the main rival to Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
UNM’s convention Friday gathered around 70 thousand people at a central stadium in Tbilisi. On Saturday, Saakashvili also addressed voters in the port city of Poti, stressing the upcoming election may be a turning point for the country. “A force which wants to destroy everything we have created in the last nine years is keen to grab power,” he told supporters, hinting at the coalition headed by Ivanishvili.
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili enters the podium to address a showpiece rally of his party three days before elections in central Tbilisi, on September 28, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)