Tens of thousands of people turned out for an opposition rally in the Georgian capital on Sunday. The event was effectively the start of an election campaign by the country's richest man.
Tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets of the capital Tbilisi on Sunday to protest against the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The rally was organized by supporters of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream Alliance, a political party that he formed just last October. The demonstration, in Tbilisi's Freedom Square effectively kicked off Ivanishvili's campaign ahead of the next election to be held this coming October.
"This struggle will end with our victory," Ivanishvili told the crowd, who responded with chants of "Bid-zi-na! Bid-zi-na!"
"My dream has always been a strong and united Georgia, where people live freely and are paid what they are worth," Ivanishvili added. "I waited for Georgia to become strong and united, but the transitional period after the gaining of independence dragged on and I decided to begin to fight this regime."
Georgia has been independent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Saakashvili has been in office since 2004. He has been credited with pushing through economic reforms and moving the country closer to the West. However he has also been blamed for leading the country into a 2008 war against Russia over two break-away Georgian republics, which ended in disaster.
This was the biggest opposition demonstration in three years, with police estimating the crowd at 30,000, while organizers claimed more than 100,000 people had turned out.
If successful in his bid to become prime minister, Ivanishvili has pledged to lead Georgia into both the European Union and the Western military alliance, NATO.
One of the candidates he could end up facing in the election is the current president. Under the country's constitution, Saakashvili may not run for a further term as president but he hasn't ruled out attempting to cling to power by running for prime minister, as Vladimir Putin did in Russia.
Until recently it wouldn't have been possible for Ivanishvili to run, as he was stripped of his Georgian passport for violating the country's citizenship legislation. Earlier this month, though, parliament passed a new law allowing EU citizens like Ivanishvili, who holds a French passport, to run for office.
pfd/msh (AFP, AP)