|Georgia razes Soviet memorial, angering Russia|
|Thursday, 17 December 2009|
By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) - Diggers tore into a Soviet World War Two memorial in Georgia on Thursday to make way for a new parliament in the former Soviet republic, drawing condemnation from Russia.
Pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose country was defeated by Russia in a brief war last year, wants parliament sessions to be relocated to Georgia's second city of Kutaisi under an initiative to revitalize the former industrial hub.
Russia's defense ministry said it was "concerned" by the demolition of the 46-meter-high (150-feet) concrete and bronze war memorial at the proposed construction site. Parliament member and former prime minister Sergei Stepashin called it "sacrilege."
Russia's Foreign Ministry said the move was "disrespectful" to Georgians who had fought in the Soviet army during World War Two, of whom some 300,000 were killed.
"This is an attempt to erase from memory Georgia's hundreds of thousands of sons and daughters, who stood shoulder to shoulder with their brother nations, who selflessly fought on the front and gave their lives," it said on its website.
The dispute has echoes of Estonia in 2007, when Russia reacted furiously to the removal of a statue of a Soviet Red Army soldier in the capital Tallinn.
Critics said the Georgian move reflected an indifference to public opinion by authorities under Saakashvili, whose rejection of the Soviet past has been his signature policy since taking power on the back of the 2003 "Rose Revolution."
"The decision to dismantle this memorial without asking the people and without asking the author of this memorial is a very good example of how our leadership ignores public opinion," said Georgy Akhvlediani of the opposition Christian Democrats.
One part of the monument, a statue of a naked Georgian horseman in front of the main concrete structure, has already been removed. Authorities said it would be relocated within Kutaisi, 236 km (147 miles) west of the capital Tbilisi.
City officials could not confirm Russian media reports that the main structure -- designed by Georgian sculptor Merab Berdzenishvili -- would be blown up on December 21, the birthday of Saakashvili which he shares with Josef Stalin.
A spokeswoman for Saakashvili declined to comment when contacted by Reuters. A Russian lawmaker said it was a crime.
"The ... criminal nature of such evil acts must be raised at all international events," Alexei Ostrovsky, a committee chairman in the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, told RIA Novosti news agency.
Relations between Russia and Georgia show no sign of improving since they fought a five-day war in August last year, when Russia crushed an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow; writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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