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Tens of Thousands Protest in Tbilisi Against Georgian President

Tens of thousands of people in Tbilisi are protesting against the government of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power following demonstrations that swept aside his predecessor in 2003. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has this report from Moscow.

At least 40,000 people gathered in front of Georgia's parliament in Tbilisi with a list of demands that include early legislative elections, electoral reform, and restrictions on presidential power.

Georgia is scheduled to hold a parliamentary election in late 2008, but the opposition wants it earlier in the year. The opposition is also accusing President Mikhail Saakashvili of human rights abuses and failure to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told VOA the demonstration was peaceful.

Utiashvili says such protests are normal in any democratic society. He says the government pursues an active policy, which he says the majority agrees with, but some don't and they decided to protest, which they have every right to do.

President Saakashvili came to power as a hero in 2003 after the so-called Rose Revolution, a mass demonstration against his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. Georgia's current leader is pro-NATO and wants the country to join the European Union. He has also had close ties with the United States.

Alexander Konovalov, a political analyst with the Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow says the Tbilisi protest is not anti-Western.

Konovalov says the protest is not against pro-Western policies. Instead, it is a pro-Georgian demonstration. He adds that the Georgian opposition is fragmented, but that if any faction were to gain power, it would most likely lean toward the United States.

Political tensions in Georgia escalated following accusations of corruption and anti-state activities against President Saakashvili by his former defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili. The president's former ally later retracted the charges.

Opposition activists say he was forced out of the country to prevent his participation in the protest. Government officials say Okruashvili flew abroad voluntarily for treatment of an unspecified medical condition. Just days before, he had announced the establishment of a new opposition party, the Movement for a United Georgia.

Opposition leaders also accuse the government of blocking roads around Tbilisi to prevent more people from joining the protest. Georgian authorities deny the charge.