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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Protesters Call for the Resignation of Georgia’s President

Around 5,000 Georgian opposition supporters marched through the capital on Wednesday, the fifth day of non-stop protests aimed at ousting pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili.

They blocked Tbilisi's main street outside parliament, where the authorities had planned to hold a military parade to mark the Georgian Independence Day on Thursday.

Chanting protesters held placards reading "Misha (Saakashvili) must go", many of them also carrying sticks and hiding their faces with scarves.

"We are preparing for a decisive struggle," opposition party leader Nino Burjanadze told the crowd, although turnout has been small since the demonstrations began on Saturday.

Amid bitter divisions within the opposition, several other parties have not sent their supporters onto the streets and one of them cancelled plans to hold what it called an Arab-style "Day of Rage" on Wednesday.

Though the demonstration was largely peaceful, about a dozen protesters attacked a police cruiser with sticks early Sunday morning, prompting the police to retaliate, said Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

“Police had to use a small amount of tear gas and rubber bullets against a small number of demonstrators,” Mr. Utiashvili said. He said two people were arrested, and five people, including the three police officers in the car, suffered minor injuries.

In another episode, demonstrators armed with sticks battled in the streets against unidentified men thought to be plainclothes police officers, according to local news reports.

Sunday’s violence, though relatively minor, revived memories of a brutal police crackdown on protesters in 2007. About 500 people were wounded then, when police officers used rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas to disperse thousands of antigovernment protesters.

The violence prompted strong international condemnation and undermined Mr. Saakashvili’s popularity at home, and the government has since sought to avoid such clashes.

So far police officers have largely stayed out of sight, clearly keen to avoid clashes.

In 2007, about 500 people were injured when police reacted heavy-handedly during a protest. The incident undermined the government's credibility and the authorities are keen to avoid the same thing happening again.

Rates of poverty may be high. But many Georgians do not trust the opposition, seen as divided and lacking credibility, and the president remains relatively popular.

Most people do not want a return to the crime and corruption which plagued the country before Mr Saakashvili came to power in 2003. So previous anti-government demonstrations have fizzled out.

Opposition leaders, though, say this time is different. They have called for a "day of rage" on Wednesday.

And further protests are expected on Thursday, when the government will stage the anniversary celebrations of Georgian independence.

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