Saakashvili Holds His Own Call-In Show

ReutersPresident Saakashvili listening during a first question-and-answer session at a television station in Tbilisi on Friday.��
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili rejected opposition calls to resign during a marathon call-in show Friday that took a page from the political playbook of the man he has mocked as his enemy -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The four-hour televised show was broadcast on all three Georgian TV channels and featured Saakashvili sitting at a semicircular table with a handpicked audience seated behind him. Images of Georgian flags and photographs of monuments appeared on a backdrop.

A mixture of prerecorded and live studio questions were dominated by social issues, concerns about the economy and the plight of Georgian villagers displaced by fighting between Russia and Georgia in August.

But there was little scrutiny of Saakashvili's decision to launch an assault on breakaway South Ossetia on Aug 7. Russia's devastating counterstrike drove the Georgian army from the region.

"It was a great personal tragedy for me," Saakashvili said. "I received the strongest blow in August, and they were the most difficult moments of my life.

"This evil force invaded my country and killed my children," he said, adding, "I am a refugee together with you, and I am a father of killed children along with you."

Saakashvili also lashed out at Russia, accusing it of destabilizing Georgia during the August war and calling Putin "an uncompromising enemy of Georgia."

Dozens of opponents demonstrated outside the television studio and accused the president of mimicking Putin, who has held an annual phone-in with the public on Russian television for several years. "What does Saakashvili have left to learn from Putin?" opposition Republican Party senior official David Usupashvili said. "He should stop ruling the country with PR stunts and allow free and fair election."

The 41-year-old president said he had no intention of wasting time and money on early elections. He said he was "in great shape," exercised everyday and started work at 11 a.m.

"I'm not planning to die nor to step down," Saakashvili said, looking tanned and generally relaxed.

"My main task right now is to save the country from economic crisis and to unify it," he said.

(Reuters, AP)