50,000 March Over Elections in Tbilisi

ReutersOpposition coalition leader Levan Gachechiladze, center, marching with supporters in central Tbilisi on Monday.
TBILISI, Georgia — About 50,000 opposition demonstrators marched Monday across Georgia's capital to protest parliamentary election results they said were rigged in favor of the ruling party.

It was one of the biggest showings of discontent in the country since a police crackdown on an opposition rally in November that undermined President Mikheil Saakashvili's image as a democratic reformer.

Saakashvili's United National Movement won about 120 out of the 150 parliament seats in Wednesday's election, strengthening his grip on power.

The United Opposition alliance, which won 16 seats, accused the authorities of widespread violations and refused to enter the parliament. Supporters of two other opposition parties, which also won several seats, joined the protest.

The protesters carried an effigy of Saakashvili with a sign saying "Vote Thief" and slogans saying "Georgia without Saakashvili!" and "For free elections!"

The protesters reached the city's main avenue shortly after a military parade celebrating the country's Independence Day had ended. Scores of riot police officers allowed the protesters to pass unimpeded to the parliament building.

"We don't recognize this parliament and refuse to join it," opposition leader David Gachechiladze told the crowd. "We are demanding to hold a new parliamentary vote."

Last week, the European Union said the main international observer mission called the implementation of Georgia's democratic commitments "uneven and incomplete," and urged authorities to ensure all complaints are "urgently addressed."

But the EU also urged "all political forces to respect the election results."

The opposition parties share Saakashvili's pro-Western views and his wariness of Russia, but they have criticized him for what they called authoritarian ways and his failure to lift the nation out of poverty.

The growing feuding between Saakashvili and his opponents spilled into the streets repeatedly over the past year, heightening tension in the nation, which sits on a key oil pipeline pumping Caspian crude to Europe and is at the center of a struggle for influence between Russia and the West.

Washington's and the EU's support for Saakashvili have prompted some of the opposition members to voice distrust in the West.

"We don't need either the United States or Europe to act as advisers," said Levan Gachechiladze, the main leader of the United Opposition.

Opposition leaders are planning another protest for June 10, the day the new parliament is set to start work. "We won't leave the authorities in peace. We will free our country," Gachechiladze said.

Saakashvili's efforts to take Georgia out of Russia's orbit and join NATO have put him on a collision course with Moscow, which has developed close ties with Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Before the four-hour rally, Saakashvili presided over Independence Day celebrations outside the parliament building, including the parade of soldiers and tanks. President Dmitry Medvedev sent congratulations on the holiday and said Moscow wanted good relations with Tbilisi.

AP, Reuters