Opposition Protests Force Georgian Leaders to Cancel Independence Day Parade

TBILISI (MosNews)–Georgia has canceled its traditional Independence Day military parade next week to avoid confrontation with protesters camped out on the parade route to demand the president resign, Tbilisi’s mayor said.

Tensions are running high after almost six weeks of opposition roadblocks and rallies in the capital calling for President Mikheil Saakashvili to quit over his record on democratic rights and last year’s disastrous war with Russia.

The opposition plans to hold its own march on May 26, when the military usually parades down Tbilisi’s tree-lined Rustaveli Avenue to mark independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The road, which runs past parliament, has been blocked for weeks by protesters camping in mock prison cells.

“We took the decision (to cancel the parade) so as not to add to tensions and to avoid confrontation with protesters standing on Rustaveli Avenue,” Tbilisi’s mayor Gigi Ugulava told Reuters on Thursday.

“I’d like to say that their actions are already illegal, but we understand the complicated political situation and atmosphere in the country,” he said.

Analysts question the appetite of the Georgian military to parade with full pomp through Tbilisi, nine months after it was humbled in five days by a devastating Russian counterstrike after Georgia launched an assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

A brief, bloodless mutiny at a tank base outside Tbilisi on May 5 has cast doubt over the loyalty of the military. The turmoil has overshadowed NATO military exercises running through May in Georgia, which have angered Russia.

Police said on Thursday they had shot dead one of the suspected ringleaders of the mutiny and wounded two others – all former military officers – when they resisted arrest.
Watched closely by its Western allies, Georgia is anxious to avoid a repeat of a 2007 crackdown against the last peaceful demonstrations against Saakashvili, when police firing tear gas and rubber bullets dispersed protesters outside parliament.

But a brief clash between police and protesters at a police base on May 6 has underscored the risk of wider violence on Russia’s southern border, a transit region for oil and gas to Europe. Tempers flared again on Thursday between protesters blocking the embankment road and frustrated motorists.

The opposition has complained of late-night attacks on its supporters. New York-based Human Rights Watch said last week it had documented a pattern of attacks that “appeared to be a concerted effort to intimidate the demonstrators” and urged police to act.

Saakashvili has resisted calls to resign over opposition accusations he has monopolized power, undermined the judiciary and stifled free media since coming to power on the back of the 2003 Rose Revolution.

Analysts and diplomats question whether the opposition has enough support or unity to unseat him, and cite opinion polls suggesting a majority of Georgians favor dialog between the government and opposition to reform the system.

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