Tbilisi (RFE/RL)–Tens of thousands of protesters turned out in Tbilisi Friday for the largest opposition rally since the 2003 Rose Revolution swept pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to power.
While most commentators don’t see the rally as reflective of a major political crisis, it marks the rise of an increasingly vocal–and well-funded–opposition whose campaign has gained steam across Georgia over the past month.
Yet the man who sparked the protests–former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili–won’t be on hand.
Okruashvili was jailed on corruption charges days after he accused Saakashvili last month of ordering the murder of political opponents–a charge the president denied. Since his release on bail following a public retraction of his accusations, Okruashvili had kept a low profile–until his lawyer announced on Thursday that the former minister had been forced into exile by authorities bent on preventing his participation in the demonstration.
"Late last night, Okruashvili was forced to come out of his house at around 2 or 3 a.m. They gave him a passport stamped with a visa issued by the French Embassy," the lawyer, Eka Beselia, said. "Having threatened to arrest him [if he didn’t obey], they forced him to leave Georgia’s territory, and put him on a plane flying out to France."
Officials denied Beselia’s claims, saying that Okruashvili requested to travel abroad for medical treatment.
The government also denied that protesters were being prevented from reaching the capital. "Georgia is a democratic country, and rallies are a normal thing here," Giga Bokeria, an influential parliamentarian from the pro-presidential National Movement told the Georgian Service Friday.
The demonstration, which attracted an estimated 40,000 people, was organized by the National Council, an umbrella group of a dozen small parties ranging from the leftist Labor Party to the Conservative and Republican parties.
Most of the parties are not represented in parliament and the Council has been faulted for its members’ lack of agreement on key issues. It only recently began demanding that parliamentary elections be held in spring 2008 as originally scheduled, after the government last year sought to delay them until next fall to coincide with presidential polls.
"We’re demanding that free, democratic elections be held within the term determined by the constitution, which is next spring," opposition leader Giorgi Khaindrava, a former minister, told reporters at the rally. "We’re not going to demand the president’s resignation. We’re demanding that he comply with the constitution."
The Council also objects to what it sees as democratic backsliding under Saakashvili. But its rallying cry is "Georgia Without A President," according to analyst Vladimir Socor, who says some Council parties want a return to a constitutional monarchy, while others are calling for a parliamentary republic.
A key figure behind the opposition movement is Badri Patarkatsishvili, one of Georgia’s richest citizens. A onetime associate of Russian tycoon and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky, Patarkatsishvili recently agreed to cede control of Imedi–Georgia’s main anti-government television station–to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in order to focus his financial resources on helping oust Saakashvili.
He has described the president as "a de facto usurper who governs the country in the way he wants and shows a democratic facade to the West." In commen’s quoted by the "Financial Times" Thursday, Patarkatsishvili added: "I financed the Rose Revolution and now I am financing a stable country and a constitutional change in government."
Saakashvili still appears to enjoy considerable support in Georgia. However, political commentators note that the massive rally is a new challenge for the government, as its ability to handle a large-scale public protest is being tested for the first time.
This is the country’s largest demonstration since the Rose Revolution of November 2003, which brought down former President Eduard Shevardnadze and set Georgia firmly on a Western-leaning course.