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4th Mar 2024

Anti-Saakashvili protests kick off peacefully

  • The opposition has pledged to continue its protests until Mikheil Saakashvili resigns (Photo: EUobserver)

Some 50,000 people gathered peacefully Thursday (9 April) afternoon in front of the Georgian parliament asking for president Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation.

"Misha, go home!" and "Protect Georgia from tyranny" were some of the slogans shouted by protesters gathered by 13 opposition parties who pledged to stay on the streets until the president resigns.

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Some protesters blamed the president for widespread unemployment and poor pensions, waving the Soviet flag Georgia used to have before the Rose Revolution, which saw Mr Saakashvili sweep into power in 2003.

Young protesters were contemptuous of the way he managed the August war, which saw most of the country invaded by the Russian army.

After three hours of political speeches on a podium, most of the protesters started walking back home, as a cold wind swept the streets in the evening.

Demonstrators showed up in far smaller numbers than projected by the opposition, who counted on some 150,000 people. According to independent European experts, the crowd was estimated at 53,000, while the government floated the figure 25,000. Some 500 protesters also gathered in the Black Sea port of Batumi, according to deputy interior minister Eka Zguladze.

Although calm and friendly, some of the people said they were willing to fight with riot police if it came down to it. "I am here with my wife and daughter and we will all fight. Mr Saakashvili has to step down, he has not delivered on his promises," one 40-year old demonstrator told this website.

Opposition leaders at the rally called on president Saakashvili to resign and said they would wait for a response over the next 24 hours and then announce what their next moves would be.

Several hundred people were still milling in front of the parliament late Thursday evening meaning some incidents could occur during the night, with some carrying long sticks which were initially used for the flags. Others were wondering, half jokingly, how to enter the Parliament, where riot police was massed.

Unlike the protests in November 2007, when riot police was deployed on the streets, firing rubber bullets and tear gas, the government has decided to place the law enforcement officers only inside the public institutions, in order to avoid clashes with protesters.

Protests and then what?

Several EU diplomats suggested that the opposition's strategy is heading for a cul-de-sac as they have refused to negotiate at all with the government so long as Mr Saakashvili remains in office.

EU special envoy to the Caucasus Peter Semneby echoed these concerns during a press briefing and called for a meaningful dialogue between opposition and government, stressing that constitutional problems "cannot be solved in the streets, but only at the negotiating table."

He added that EU diplomats were in close contact with both the government and the opposition and there were some European experts observing activities at the Ministry of Interior.

Czech ambassador Ivan Jestrab, speaking on behalf of the EU presidency, said that member states were paying close attention to the events. "We are stressing the need for more dialogue between opposition and government and calling for a political solution to the open questions your country is facing."

Deputy interior minister Eka Zguladze rejected speculation about Russian attempts to influence the protests, saying that from the government's point of view, there was no link between increased deployment of Russian military equipment both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the demonstrations.

"We do not bring any link between the question mark that we have about the Russian behaviour with the demonstrations. We will deal with the demonstrations as if Russia did not exist. There are two very separate developments," she said.

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