- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

TBILISI, GEORGIA (AP) - About 20,000 demonstrators kept up the pressure on Georgia’s president to resign Friday, with some pelting his residence with cabbages and carrots on a second day of protests.

President Mikhail Saakashvili rejected their demands and called for talks.

The crowds were thinner than on Thursday, a national holiday, when three times as many demonstrators jammed the capital’s main avenue, but the daily protests showed no sign of ending.

Their most bitter criticism is directed at the president’s handling of the brief war last summer with Russia. The Georgian army was humiliated and the country lost territory as separatists and their Russian allies took full control of two breakaway Georgian regions.

Saakashvili, whose five-year term runs until 2013, told foreign reporters that he would not resign.

“It’s obvious the answer to this question is ‘no,’” he said in English. “It has always been ‘no,’ because that’s how it is under the constitution.”

Saakashvili repeated his call for dialogue with the opposition. At first he was again rebuffed, but opposition leaders later told the crowds that they would agree to talks as long as they were televised live. Some in the crowd jeered.

Even so, that appeared to be a breakthrough. The presidential administration said it had no immediate comment.

The protesters, meanwhile, stepped up their pressure, announcing what they called a campaign of civil disobedience to block roads throughout the city. Two groups of protesters left the main rally in front of Georgia’s parliament, with one marching to Saakashvili’s residence and the other to the headquarters of the main state television channel.

Some of the protesters threw heads of cabbage, carrots and chunks of bread at the residence, which was guarded by helmeted riot police. The “rabbit food” was a reference to the opposition’s accusation that Saakashvili behaved in cowardly fashion during last summer’s war.

The opposition and the government have promised to keep the demonstrations peaceful, but as tensions rise there are fears of civil unrest. Friday’s protests ended peacefully. More were planned for Saturday.

Police have not intervened and said the protesters were free to hold demonstrations daily.

Protesters also accuse Saakashvili of betraying his promises of democratic reform and embarrassing his country with his erratic behavior. He also is criticized for not doing enough to fight poverty and unemployment.

“Saakashvili should step down, there is no doubt,” said Zurab Chkheidze, 33. “We need free media. We are simply psychologically tired of this person and his government.”

The president portrayed the peaceful protests as showing the strength of Georgia’s civil society. “Yesterday was an important day for democracy: One part of society expressed its opinion,” he said.

The demonstrations were reminiscent of the bloodless protests of the Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power five years ago. But the fragmented opposition does not appear to have the support necessary to stage a similar revolt.

Saakashvili’s party still has broad support throughout Georgia, and many people say they are tired of the political squabbling.

Opposition leader Irakly Alasania, who until recently was Georgia’s U.N. ambassador, was the first to announce a willingness to hold talks. When the crowds jeered, Levan Gachechiladze, a burly man who ran against Saakashvili last year, stepped to the microphone.

“We are not crazy,” he bellowed. “There is only person who is crazy, Saakashvili. It is a question of saving the country. If we meet, everyone will see it on live television.”

Many of the protesters remained unconvinced. “The only thing they can talk about is Saakashvili’s resignation,” said Makvala Kiknadze, 33.

This week’s protests follow similar demonstrations in two other former Soviet republics, Moldova and Ukraine, where opposition leaders also charge that democratically elected governments have failed to deliver on their promises of reform and prosperity.

Georgians once widely admired Saakashvili, 41, as an energetic, pro-Western reformist, but many have become disillusioned by what they describe as his authoritarian bent. Criticism of his government was all but silenced during the war, as Georgians came together in the face of the Russian invasion, but opposition has slowly galvanized in recent months.

The war badly strained relations between Russia and the West. Like the president, the opposition leaders want closer ties with the United States and Europe. But they also consider it necessary to repair relations with Moscow, which they say would be all but impossible because of the antagonism between Saakashvili and Russia’s leaders.

Saakashvili’s critics also see the war as making it even more unlikely for Georgia to be offered NATO membership anytime soon.


Associated Press writer Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili contributed to this report.

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