|Opposition supporters rally in Georgian capital ahead of president's visit to Washington|
|March 17, 2008|
March 17, 2008
About 5,000 opposition protesters rallied in the Georgian capital on Sunday evening to show their dissatisfaction with President Mikhail Saakashvili ahead of his visit to Washington this week.
The demonstrators, gathered in front of the parliament building, accused Saakashvili of stealing the Jan. 5 presidential election in which he won re-election with 53 percent of the vote. They demanded he step down and call a new election.
Among the demonstrators were about 60 people who joined a hunger strike begun by a handful of opposition leaders last weekend to press their demands. The hunger strikers, whose numbers grew throughout the week, have been camping out in front of parliament in tents.
In a televised address Sunday before leaving for Washington, Saakashvili appealed to Georgians for unity at a time of heightened tensions with Russia.
He said a "major geopolitical battle" was being waged over Georgia's desire to join NATO. He also accused Russia of creating a "critical situation" through its support for two separatist regions that Georgia's government has been aiming to bring back under its control.
Russia has opposed NATO's eastward expansion and seems particularly concerned about the prospect of membership for Georgia and Ukraine. The leaders of both former Soviet republics have annoyed Moscow by turning toward the West.
Opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze was not swayed by the president's remarks. He called on his supporters to protest in front of the US Embassy on Wednesday, the day Saakashvili is to meet with US President George W. Bush in Washington.
"The Americans should know that Saakashvili does not represent the Georgian people," Gachechiladze told the crowd. "The Georgian people are represented by all of you."
The opposition claims Saakashvili's camp relied on fraud to reach the 50 percent threshold needed for outright victory. They want him to face a runoff against Gachechiladze, who won about 25 percent of the vote, according to official results.
Since he was first elected in 2004, 40-year-old Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer, has helped transform Georgia into a country with a growing economy and aspirations of joining the European Union as well as NATO.
But his popularity has plunged, and his government has been accused of authoritarianism and criticized for failing to ease poverty.
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