April 13, 2009 / 1:01 PM / 10 years ago

Georgia protesters step up drive to oust president

TBILISI (Reuters) - Protesters in Georgia set up camp outside President Mikheil Saakashvili’s office on Monday and the EU urged talks on the fifth day of an opposition street campaign against his rule.

Demonstrators with flags march through the centre of Tbilisi during a protest April 13, 2009. Thousands of Georgians took their campaign to oust Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili to his office on Monday, the fifth day of protests against his rule. REUTERS/Irakly Gedenidze

Up to 20,000 protesters rallied in the capital as opposition leaders tried to maintain momentum in their bid to oust Saakashvili over his record on democracy and last year’s disastrous war with Russia.

The European Union said the opposition should settle for dialogue and that the government should address the protesters’ grievances to avoid the “debilitating” crisis repeating itself.

Several thousand marched on the imposing presidential residence overlooking the Mtkvari River and dozens set up tents to spend the night.

“That way he will hear our voices much more loudly,” said Kakha Kukava, one of the opposition leaders.

Another, former United Nations ambassador Irakly Alasania, said the opposition was ready to hold talks with the president but that an election was the only way out of the deadlock.

“We are ready to discuss with the president the grounds for these demands and also hear from him how he sees the political crisis (being) resolved,” said Alasania. “He created a one-man state, and our political objective is to change this system.”

Russia’s crushing of a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia last year has emboldened opponents who say he has made too many mistakes to stay in power until 2013. The West, which receives Caspian Sea oil via Georgia, is watching closely.

DISCONTENT

Some 60,000 people rallied on Thursday. Turnout dipped over the weekend and on Monday protest organizers said they were shifting the focus from the parliament to Saakahvili’s office. Protesters continued to block Tbilisi’s central avenue.

Analysts question whether the opposition can remain united or muster sufficient numbers over a sustained period. Despite the defection of some key allies and repeated cabinet reshuffles since the war, Saakashvili’s position appears to remain strong.

Critics accuse him of monopolizing power and exerting pressure on the judiciary and media since coming to power on the back of the 2003 “Rose Revolution.”

Police dispersed the last peaceful mass protests against Saakashvili in a crackdown condemned by his Western backers.

“It can go on for a long time, but in our view a far better scenario is to identify the agenda for a political process,” EU South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby told Reuters.

If not, “the danger is always there that the grievances and discontent will remain and we will have the same thing happening in a few months or half a year with the debilitating effect that this has on Georgia.”

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