Thousands of opposition supporters marched across the Georgian capital Friday in the first major protest against President Mikhail Saakashvili since the nation's August war with Russia.
The United Opposition coalition held its rally exactly a year after riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse peaceful demonstrators who called for Saakashvili's ouster.
But at least two significant opposition parties – the Republican Party and the Christian Democrats – stayed away from the protest, citing the need for postwar unity against Russia.
Opposition leaders said they expected 50,000 people at the rally outside parliament on the capital's main avenue, but the crowd did not come close to that size. Protesters marched through Tbilisi's winding streets to Saakashvili's hillside headquarters, chanting “Go away!”
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The opposition also demanded greater press freedoms and called for early presidential and parliamentary elections next spring.
“We will push for Saakashvili's resignation using peaceful means,” said Kakha Kukava, leader of the Conservative Party.
Anger over Georgia's losses in the war has added to the dissatisfaction among Saakashvili's opponents. The opposition has demanded an explanation from the government for the mistakes of the war, which broke out when Saakashvili launched a military offensive to reclaim separatist South Ossetia.
Russian forces intervened, routing the Georgian military and driving deep into the former Soviet republic, where they remained for weeks.
“Saakashvili's bloody adventure ended in complete failure,” said Nestan Kirtadze, a leader of the Labor Party.
Russia has recognized separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations and pledged to station thousands of troops there, badly undermining Georgia's chances of regaining control.
The 2007 protests – during which Saakashvili declared a state of emergency and cracked down on independent media – caused great concern among his Western backers.
Participants in Friday's rally endorsed a statement addressed to Barack Obama urging the incoming U.S. administration to withdraw support for Saakashvili.
“The Georgian people believes that Georgia's relations with the United States will be based on democratic values rather than support of certain individuals who compromised themselves and democratic values,” the statement said.