- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia | Opposition protesters demonstrated Friday against President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government and urged President-elect Barack Obama to help bring political change to Georgia.

The protests were the first since Georgia lost a war with Russia in August and occurred on the first anniversary of a similar demonstration the government dispersed with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.

An estimated 10,000 demonstrators assembled outside the parliament building. Several thousand more joined a rally outside the presidential residence.

The numbers were about a fifth of those who turned out a year ago, highlighting the fractured nature of the opposition. Two opposition parties - the Christian Democrats and the Republican Party - did not participate, citing the need for postwar unity.

Those who did take part accused the Bush administration of ignoring election fixing and media suppression by the Georgian government. Several protest leaders said they hoped Mr. Obama would pressure Mr. Saakashvili into holding early elections next spring.

“In the name of the tens of thousands here, we want to congratulate the American people with the choice of Barack Obama,” Conservative Party leader Kakha Kukava told the crowd outside the presidential residence. “It’s a new hope for people all over the world,”

“We believe in Obama. We trust Obama,” one poster declared in Georgian.

Several protesters held posters carrying photos of the U.S. president-elect’s face.

Opposition leaders said U.S. officials were not sufficiently critical of the Georgian government.

Referring to Daniel Fried, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe, and his deputy Matthew Bryza, opposition leader Goga Khaindrava asked: “Why didn’t Mr. Fried and Mr. Bryza pay enough attention to this regime? Why didn’t they say the truth about Georgia? Why were they calling a regime of totalitarianism a democracy?”

Western leaders have praised Mr. Saakashvili as a progressive, Western-oriented leader since he came to power following the Rose Revolution of 2003. The Bush administration later criticized Mr. Saakashvili for repressive measures but strongly backed his government after the war, accusing Russia of aggression and of using disproportionate force.

However, new accounts from independent military observers have called Georgia’s version of events into question.

Asked about reports that the Georgians began the August conflict by indiscriminantly shelling the ethnic enclave of South Ossetia, which has since declared independence, State Department spokesman Robert Wood on Friday said: “We’ve seen the reports. We may or may never get to the bottom of who was actually responsible for what went on there. But we have, from the beginning, encouraged both sides not to be provoked or to provoke. And the Georgians felt that they were provoked by the Russians.

“The important thing is for us to move forward, and that’s what we’re trying to do in terms of trying to reconstruct Georgia,” Mr. Wood said.

Mr. Kukava said the demonstrators “are here to announce we are starting a new political movement that will finish this government.”

Levan Gachechiladze, a longtime opposition leader, told the crowd, “Our main demand is free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections next spring.”

Transparency International, Georgia, and other independent monitoring groups have said elections in May might have been fixed by Mr. Saakashvili’s National Movement party. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found problems, but ultimately endorsed the vote.

Svetlana Alsiani walked 14 hours to protest the government’s attempts in 2007 to seize a shop she owns.

“I can bear anything. I can be hungry or thirsty, but I can’t bear when my rights are taken away,” the 63-year-old businesswoman said.

The local government tried to sell her shop to a private security firm, she said, but she held a hunger strike and refused to leave her store. The two local television stations would not cover her story, she said.

“Television is not a free media in Georgia,” she said.

Like other protesters, Ms. Alsiani said she thought Mr. Obama’s election would help Georgia.

“I am happy that Barack Obama was elected. From what I can tell from the newspapers, he is a person who can change not only his country, but the world,” she said.

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