Billionaire brings Georgians out against the President

 

Tbilisi

Tens of thousands thronged the streets of Georgia's capital yesterday to show their opposition to President Mikhail Saakashvili in the largest anti-government demonstration in three years.

The protest was seen as a test of public support for the opposition ahead of a parliamentary election in October.

It also was a political coming-out party for the organiser, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who is Georgia's richest man and leading philanthropist. He made his entry into politics in October, announcing that he was forming a political party with the aim of winning the parliamentary vote and becoming Prime Minister.

Mr Saakashvili's second and final presidential term ends in January, and his plans are unclear. He has not excluded becoming Prime Minister, a position that will gain extra powers under a 2010 constitutional reform that his opponents said was designed to allow Mr Saakashvili to remain a political force after leaving the presidency. But this would bring unwelcome comparisons to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who spent the past four years as Prime Minister to accommodate a constitutional ban on two consecutive presidential terms.

Organisers estimated yesterday's turnout at 110,000, while police put it at more than 30,000. As the participants marched from three directions to join the rally on Freedom Square, they carried Georgian flags but also the flags of the EU and Nato, indicating that support remains high for the goals set under Mr Saakashvili for Georgia one day to join both organisations.

The demonstrators also wrote their "dreams" on pieces of paper and stuffed them in sacks printed with the name of Mr Ivanishvili's new party: Georgian Dreams.

Georgia won its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and began moving closer to the West when Mr Saakashvili became president in January 2004. He is credited with pushing through a series of political and economic reforms, but he also led the country into a disastrous war with Russia in 2008 over two breakaway Georgian republics, now fully allied with Moscow and beyond Tbilisi's control.

Mr Saakashvili weathered weeks of opposition demonstrations in 2009 demanding his resignation over his handling of the war, but the splintered opposition groups failed to coordinate and the protests fizzled out.

Mr Ivanishvili has formed a coalition with some opposition parties but has refused to work with others, including the party led by veteran opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze.

Yesterday's rally was opened by Kakha Kaladze, the former captain of Georgia's football team, who played for AC Milan. It ended with a performance by Mr Ivanishvili's eldest son, Bera, a rap musician.

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