TBILISI (Reuters) - Tensions flared on Saturday during the third day of an opposition street campaign in Georgia against President Mikheil Saakashvili with the authorities and protesters trading blame for a fight at the protest venue.
Opposition leaders said a 50-strong mob had attacked the venue, tearing banners and ripping out computer cables at a stage set up outside parliament as dozens of protesters prepared to spend a third night on the street.
Police, however, said protesters had set on street cleaners who arrived to clear the site of litter.
Up to 5,000 people rallied on Saturday, a sharp drop from the previous two days when 60,000 and then 20,000 took to the streets to demand Saakashvili quit over his record on democracy and last year’s disastrous war with Russia.
Saakashvili has refused to resign, and instead offered dialogue. Some opposition leaders said on Friday they had agreed, but the details of a possible meeting have not been set.
“That’s the government’s response to its own proposal for dialogue,” Salome Zurabishvili, one of the opposition leaders, told reporters after the clash. “This is an insult to the Georgian people and an insult to any dialogue,” she said.
The Georgian Interior Ministry released a statement denying any involvement. It blamed protesters, who on Saturday again blocked three main roads in the capital.
“When the cleaning crew arrived, they were accosted and physically attacked by civilians who were participating in the demonstrations,” the statement said. It said police were exercising a policy of “staying away” to avoid confrontation.
Analysts warn tensions risk boiling over into unrest. The West is watching closely for a possible repeat of a 2007 crackdown, when police firing teargas and rubber bullets dispersed the last peaceful demonstrations against Saakashvili.
The 41-year-old president has polarized opinion in the former Soviet republic since coming to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution.
Critics accuse him of monopolizing power and exerting pressure on the judiciary and media. Opposition has grown since Georgia’s five-day war with Russia last year, when Moscow crushed a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia.
But diplomats question whether the alliance of more than a dozen opposition parties can maintain unity or muster enough people to force Saakashvili out.
Analysts say the president’s ruling United National Movement retains wide support and his position appears strong, despite the defection of some top allies and several cabinet reshuffles.
Many Georgians appear frustrated with political bickering and are sympathetic to government calls for stability as the global economic crisis takes hold.