TBILISI (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters who accuse Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of flouting human rights and stifling dissent forced him to change the venue of his annual address to the nation on Friday.
Political tensions have engulfed Georgia since Saakashvili’s party lost parliamentary elections in October to a group led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Now prime minister, Ivanishvili is experiencing a difficult cohabitation with the president.
Scuffles broke out as protesters barred officials from Saakashvili’s party entering Georgia’s National Library, the venue for the speech that was due later in the day.
Protesters smashed windows and broke doors to the library and threw punches at Saakashvili allies, including the mayor of Tbilisi and a woman lawmaker who was left with a nose bleed.
Following the protest, Saakashvili made his annual address from his office and called for his opponents to abandon the rivalry he said risks undermining democracy and unity in the Caucasus nation.
“Now it is time for the new majority to give more to the Georgian people and to continue to build our national home,” Saakashvili said. “It is time for the winners of the elections to build a new floor in our collective home, rather than undermining its basement.”
Saakashvili is widely credited for clamping down on corruption and implementing liberal economic reforms during nine years of political dominance in Georgia, but his critics accuse him of concentrating too much power in his hands, human rights abuses and stifling dissent.
He was originally due to give the speech in front of the Georgian parliament, but its speaker, an Ivanishvili ally, said earlier this week the address should be put off, prompting the president to opt for the library instead.
“Worrying that majority blocks President from delivering traditional address to Parliament of Georgia. Mutual respect is key to democracy,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter.
Saakashvili, whose term expires in October and who is barred from seeking re-election, called on the government to focus on integrating Georgia with the West, obey democratic standards and fight crime.
“There is no room for vengefulness or civil war-style rhetoric in our modern and democratic Georgia,” Saakashvili said. “There is room for cohabitation and, even more, room for cooperation between us.”
Saakashvili stressed he had no plans to dismiss Ivanishvili’s government, something he has the power to do under the present constitution though parliament is considering changing that in order to curb presidentail prerogatives.
Saakashvili’s acceptance last year of his party going into opposition to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition marked Georgia’s first peaceful transfer of power between rival parties since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
“Let us not sacrifice this nation on the altar of personal ambition or collective anger. Let us not spoil this historic opportunity. Let us work together instead of arresting, insulting, or beating each other,” Saakashvili said.
Georgian Dream victory came after reports of prisoner abuse that led to protests against Saakashvili.
The new authorities have arrested dozens of former senior officials they say were involved in rights violations and other crimes in the country of 4.5 million, which serves as a conduit for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe.
Saakashvili critics were not convinced by his speech.
“It’s impossible to have serious discussions with a man who lies all the time,” Tina Khidasheli, a lawmaker from Ivanishvili’s ruling coalition, told Reuters.
Some of those who protested in Tbilisi earlier on Friday had recently been released from prison under an amnesty approved by the parliament and which Saakashvili tried in vain to block.
“Mikheil Saakashvili was stirring hostility and violence for nine years in our country. What you see here today is just a result of his policy,” said Melor Vachnadze, one of the protesters outside the National Library.
Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Jon Hemming