Georgian opposition steps up street campaign
TBILISI (Reuters) - Thousands of demonstrators in Georgia marched on the office of President Mikheil Saakashvili and blocked main roads in the capital on Friday, vowing to force his resignation through a campaign of civil disobedience.
Opposition leaders, who gathered some 60,000 protesters on Thursday and 20,000 on Friday, said they would pursue their campaign nationwide until Saakashvili quits over his record on democracy and last year's disastrous war with Russia.
Saakashvili refused to resign, saying he had heard such "ultimatums" every other month since taking power in the former Soviet republic on the back of the 2003 "Rose Revolution."
But the campaign marks potentially the biggest challenge to his continued rule. He called for dialogue, and opposition leaders said they had agreed to sit down with him, but the details of a possible meeting were not set.
Protesters blocked Tbilisi's central avenue in front of parliament through the night and into Friday, before halting traffic on the main roads leading past the office of the president and the state broadcaster. Some climbed on the fence surrounding the presidential compound.
"We are not going to enter these buildings," Levan Gachechiladze, an opposition leader and former presidential challenger, told the crowd outside parliament. "We just want to take our country back."
He said protesters would repeat the roadblocks daily from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. (1100-1700 GMT). The campaign threatens to test the patience of authorities who in November 2007 sent in police firing teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the last peaceful mass demonstrations against Saakashvili.
Diplomats question whether the opposition can maintain unity and muster enough people to join daily protests to force him out. They warn tensions risk boiling over into unrest.
Analysts say Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement retains wide support and his position appears strong, despite the defection of some top allies and several cabinet reshuffles.
"It's obvious the answer to this question is 'No'," 41-year-old Saakashvili told a news conference when asked if he would give in to the opposition call. "It has always been 'No', because that's how it is under the constitution," he said.
"I've been facing these ultimatums every other month during the last five years," Saakashvili said, speaking in English. "Every independent poll clearly proves that people are longing for dialogue, for long-term stability."
Pro-Western but seen by some Georgians as brash and impulsive, Saakashvili has polarized opinion in the Caucasus country of 4.5 million people, a transit route for oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe. Critics accuse him of betraying the promises of 2003 by monopolizing power and exerting pressure on the judiciary and media.
Defeat in last year's five-day war with Russia, when Moscow crushed a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia, has emboldened critics who argue the president has made too many mistakes to remain in power until 2013.
But many Georgians appear frustrated with political bickering and sympathetic to government calls for stability.
(Additional reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili, editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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