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26 May, 2009 18:25

Georgian opposition gathers for final push

Tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators have gathered in a stadium in the Georgian capital Tbilisi demanding President Mikhail Saakashvili and his current parliament step down.

After 40 days of protest more than 60,000 people have poured into the center of Georgia's capital.

“We decided to bring people to the stadium. It's a place where they know the number of seats. The Opposition wants to show how many people it is capable of gathering under its flags,” said Mamuka Areshidze, a political analyst and member of the opposition movement.

“All of Georgian society demands a change in the country,” opposition leader David Berdzenishvili said at the meeting.

May 26 is Georgia’s Independence Day, but this year the holiday is marked in a different manner, said one of the Conservative Party leaders Kakha Kukava.

“Today is a very important day because since 1991 this is the first Independence Day that the Georgian people have been celebrating. But those in power have always marked it with tanks, planes and invited the party elite for the festivities. This time we have no tanks here, but all the Georgian people, the whole of Georgia is supporting us,” Ria Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.

The Georgian opposition has held a “civil parade” on this day, as they call it. On the request of opposition leaders most of the protesters came up dressed in white clothes.

The people who have gathered at the stadium have honored the memory of those, as they said, who died in fight for freedom and independence of Georgia.

After the rally, demonstrators marched to the main cathedral to consult with the respected leader of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, Iliya II. They wanted his advice on how to proceed in a political standoff now in its seventh week.

One of the country’s opposition leaders, Eka Beselia, proposed blocking the railway in Tbilisi. He was speaking at a rally in front of the Georgian parliament building.

“We will block the railroad today and will be stepping up protests as much as we can until Saakashvili steps down,” he said.

Then demonstrators marched through the center of Georgia’s capital to the parliament building to press their demands that the president steps down.

Opposition leaders believe they'll end the current political disorder.

“The situation has changed a lot since April. We have succeeded in the fact that Saakashvili is not in fact governing Georgia, his power is virtual. He is out of Tbilisi and unable to do his usual parade. Nothing is working in the country, it is at a dead end, from which it can come out only through election – that's what will be the major demand of today's protest,” another opposition leader Salome Zourabichvili said.

Call for support from the West

The Georgian opposition has also called on the international community to help resolve the situation in Georgia.

“We call on our Western friends to make use of all the resources they have to stop the escalation of tensions in the country,” their statement reads.

“People should be given an opportunity to make free choice and change the power in a peaceful way”.

The document addresses “the governments of democratic countries, international organizations and those who are friendly to Georgian people.”

The note says that its authors are protesting against “Georgia’s having engaged into the war and having lost its territories.” Also, the protest organizers stress that they don’t want the struggle to grow out of peaceful constitutional confrontation.

“We will show once again that we are not ending the fight and we will continue this fight… And it will be great if Western community will understand us better and will give us more serious support,” Nino Burdzhanadze said, leader of the Democratic Movement ‘United Georgia.’

But so far the West has been in no hurry to give support and these protests rarely make news there.

So, the protesters rely on people power and the tens of thousands who come out on the streets. Two months on, and it seems the demonstrations, if anything, are getting bigger.

Georgia’s political prisoners supported at Moscow rally

Georgians in Moscow have held a rally in front of the Swiss consulate in support of political prisoners in Tbilisi. The protesters were dressed in prison uniforms.

Around 20 people took part. Many carried placards with messages, including: “Open Your Eyes, Europe”, “Switzerland, Help” and “No to Political Prisoners in Georgia”. Other protesters waved flags of the European Union, Georgia and Switzerland.

Switzerland represents Russia’s interests in Georgia and Georgia’s interests in Russia after the two sides ruptured diplomatic relations in the wake of the war in South Ossetia.

“There should be no political prisoners in Georgia, which presents itself as a democratic state,” the organization committee of the rally said.

The protesters voiced support for Vladimir Vakhania, leader of the United Georgia Party. He was arrested in March on what activists say were trumped up charges.

President's reaction

Mikhail Saakashvili chose to stay away and instead gave a lesson in democracy to school pupils, who seem to be better listeners.

“Independence is a freedom that is threatened every day. In the conditions when this threat is ever-present, when we face great challenges and young political culture is to create a state, a system that will make our country truly free,” the president said.

When Saakashvili came to power in 2004 crowds cheered. But crowds at today’s opposition rallies prefer to cheer "Leave!"

In 2007 Georgian police violently broke up a peaceful opposition rally against Mikhail Saakashvili.

The president’s strategy has changed since then. He now appears to be ready to ignore the thousands of people that have stayed on Tbilisi's streets in recent weeks. Daily protests are now a part of the city's life.