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Europe

Thousands Turn Out in Tblisi to Protest Georgian Leader

Some 10,000 opponents of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili rallied in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Friday in the first major show of discontent since Georgia's was defeated in a war with Russia in August.

Protesters hold a poster of US President-elect Obama, reading America We Believe In, at the Friday protest in Tbilisi

Georgian protestors want change

The protest was held on the first anniversary of a policy crackdown on opposition forces, who were fired upon last November with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon after days of protest outside the parliament in Tblisi.

Saakashvili has fallen far short of the expectations of many since he came to power in the "Rose Revolution" of 2003 promising to increase democracy to the ex-Soviet republic. The West, including the country's staunch ally the United States, have called for greater freedoms for the media, the judiciary and political opponents.

A man stands near a hole left by a bomb in the town of Gori, Georgia, in August

The war with Russia is still on many people's minds

Voices of discontent in Georgia have also grown louder since the disastrous five-day war with Moscow that saw Russian tanks and troops move in to repel a Georgian bid to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Many have accused Saakashvili of mishandling the war.

"In August the authorities returned us to the Middle Ages. Saakashvili opened Georgia's gates for the barbarians," opposition leader Giorgi Khaindrava told the crowd.

First of many

Organizers said the protest would be the first of many to demand Saakashvili's resignation and early elections.

Many protesters wore white scarves and armbands as they waved opposition flags in front of the Georgian parliament building, using the color and symbols of last year's violently dispersed anti-government protests.

President Saakashvili

Some believe Saakashvili mishandled the war

"We are starting a new wave of protests. Our main demand is free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections next spring," opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze told reporters at the start of the rally.

Still, turnout was far lower than at the November protests last year that drew tens of thousands to the streets for days until police used violent means to disperse the crowds.

Saakashvili subsequently imposed a state of emergency and called a snap presidential election. He won the January poll in a single round of voting and his United National Movement swept parliamentary elections a few months later.

Democratic deficit

Western powers have praised Saakashvili for democratic and economic reforms, but simmering discontent has boiled over in the wake of the August war and widespread perception that the president has limited media freedom and ignored the poor in his drive to implement economic reforms.

Saakashvili with French President Sarkozy, left, and the EU's Barroso

Saakashvili has Western support

Doubts have also been raised about Georgia's assertion that attacked in response to separatist shelling of Georgian villages.

On the eve of Friday's rally, a coalition of opposition parties distributed a pamphlet laying out plans for a series of rallies and other actions designed to pressure the government into calling early elections by next spring. If the government has not called elections by next April 9, the anniversary of a 1989 Soviet crackdown on protesters that left 20 dead, the opposition will begin a "round-the-clock permanent" protest rally, it said.

Still, the opposition is hobbled by its divisions -- the Christian Democrats, a leader opposition party, refused to take part on Friday -- and its lack of a charismatic leader.

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