Georgia’s opposition said dozens of supporters had been detained overnight ahead of mass rallies against President Mikheil Saakashvili on Thursday by critics emboldened by last year’s disastrous with Russia.
An Interior Ministry spokesperson denied the allegation.
Opposition leaders, their ranks swollen by defectors, are predicting a turnout of 150 000 on Thursday and say protests will continue daily until Saakashvili (41) resigns and calls elections.
The opposition accuses Saakashvili of exercising an authoritarian streak to stifle the democratic reforms that were promised in the 2003 Rose Revolution that swept him to power in the former Soviet republic.
War in August, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the breakaway South Ossetia region and sent tanks to within 40km of Tbilisi, emboldened critics who say the president has made too many mistakes to stay in power until 2013.
The opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia party of former Saakashvili ally Nino Burjanadze said about 60 activists had been detained in the town of Rustavi, southeast of Tbilisi.
”They were planning to come to Tbilisi today to attend the rally,” party spokesperson Khatuna Ivanishvili said.
”It is not true,” said Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili.
Analysts say frustrations could boil over into unrest, but doubt the opposition’s unity, the strength of its leadership and the level of support it commands beyond Tbilisi.
”We have set ourselves the goal of removing the incumbent illegitimate president from power, and we will achieve this goal,” opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili told reporters. ”The rally will not disperse until Saakashvili resigns.”
Fire crews and hundreds of police in full riot gear entered the courtyard of the Parliament in central Tbilisi overnight.
Fear of unrest has been fed by the authorities, who in March said they had uncovered a plot to overthrow the government. Police arrested 10 men with suspected opposition links and released secretly filmed video of them apparently buying weapons.
Saakashvili has been deserted by several key allies before and after the war, but analysts say his position within the ruling party remains strong.
Many Georgians are tired of political bickering in the capital and are sympathetic to government calls for stability as a global economic crisis deepens.
Some Georgians see Saakashvili as brash and impulsive, and question his handling of the war. But he draws support from the prevailing consensus in the country that Russia was to blame.
The West — drawing oil and gas through Georgia from the Caspian Sea — is watching for a possible repeat of a November 2007 crackdown, when police firing teargas and rubber bullets dispersed the last major demonstrations against Saakashvili.
Saakashvili’s young, mainly Western-educated team came to power blessed by former United States president George Bush as a ”beacon of liberty”, but the light has faded and diplomats say Barack Obama’s administration will be less forgiving.
Thursday’s rally is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of a bloody crackdown by Soviet troops in the twilight of the Soviet Union against Georgian protesters demanding independence for the republic of 4,5-million people.
Saakashvili joined hundreds of people in front of the Parliament early on Thursday to remember the victims. ”Georgia today, as never before, needs unity and firmness,” he said. ”We are a democratic state and people have different opinions.”
The government says it suspects the hand of Russia in the opposition protests — allegations that the opposition dismisses as a smear campaign. — Reuters