Georgians Celebrate and Protest at a Rally

ReutersOpposition supporters rallying outside Georgian Public Television on Tuesday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Tens of thousands of people demonstrated on Tuesday in Georgia's capital, pressing for a presidential runoff but celebrating an agreement giving government opponents more control over the main state-funded television station.

Protesters streamed to the small square outside the headquarters of Georgian Public Television for the rally, many wearing white bandannas, a symbol of the opposition, around their necks. The crowd spilled across the street, reaching 30,000 and blocking traffic.

"We will not compromise," said Levan Gachechiladze, the candidate who came in second to incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili in the vote on Jan. 5, according to official results. "We will not take a single step back. We will not let them falsify the election."

Saakashvili's inauguration for a second term is expected early next week, but the opposition does not accept the official results. Opposition leaders reiterated calls for a runoff between Gachechiladze and Saakashvili, who they claim fell short of the 50 percent needed to win outright.

Results released by the Central Elections Commission on Sunday showed Saakashvili with more than 53 percent and Gachechiladze with more than 25 percent.

While international observers gave a mixed assessment of the vote, they said it met most of Georgia's democratic commitments.

Opposition leaders had planned to call for the ouster of the leadership of the state-funded television station, which they accuse of denying them airtime and favoring the government.

But opposition leaders and Nino Burdzhanadze, the Saakashvili ally who is acting president pending Saakashvili's inauguration, announced an agreement to give the opposition equal representation on a supervisory board at the station.

"We have won a big victory," Gachechiladze told the crowd. "From today forward, Public Television will be in the hands of the people."

Opposition leaders stressed they would continue contesting the election results.

"We will fight for the truth," said Giorgy Khaindrava, an opposition leader who, like many others, is a former Saakashvili ally.

The demonstration lasted about an hour before leaders told the crowd to disperse. It came two days after an opposition protest drew 60,000 people to central Tbilisi to protest the election.

Saakashvili was elected with 96 percent of the vote in January 2004 after leading the peaceful Rose Revolution protests that ousted his predecessor. But his popularity has faded amid persistent poverty and accusations of authoritarianism.

He called the election Jan. 5, a year ahead of schedule, after ordering a violent crackdown on opposition protesters in November -- moves aimed to maintain his grip on power and stave off a mounting opposition challenge.

Georgia's justice minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, on Tuesday said the election was competitive and showed that country had overcome its "post-Soviet mentality."

Tkeshelashvili, in an interview during a visit to Vienna, also said protesters contesting the official results would not be silenced.

"What is important is that results of the election, they do reflect the will of the Georgian people and have been widely recognized," she said.

Tkeshelashvili acknowledged that international election observers gave the country mixed marks but said deficiencies were largely because of a time crunch. In the 3,511 precincts, there were only two attempts at ballot stuffing, she said, adding that investigations were under way and that the cases were being "taken very seriously."