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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saakashvili Rejects Continued Calls for Resignation

ReutersProtestors blocking a street during an opposition rally in Tbilisi on Friday.
TBILISI, Georgia - About 20,000 people took to the streets in Tbilisi on Friday in a second day of protests calling for the resignation of Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, but the embattled president rejected their demands and called for dialogue with his critics.

The crowds were thinner than on Thursday, when three times as many protesters jammed the capital's main avenue. Opposition leaders vowed the protests would continue until the president stepped down.

Their most bitter criticism is directed at the president's handling of the brief August war with Russia. The Georgian army was humiliated and the country lost territory as separatists and their Russian allies took full control over two breakaway Georgian regions.

Saakashvili, whose five-year term runs until 2013, told foreign reporters before Friday's rally that he would not resign.

"It's obvious the answer to this question is 'no,"' he said. "It has always been 'no,' because that's how it is under the constitution."

Saakashvili repeated his often-shunned call for dialogue with the opposition. At first he was again rebuffed, but some opposition leaders later told the crowds that they would agree to talks as long as they were held in public. Some in the crowd jeered.

Even so, that appeared to be a breakthrough. The presidential administration said it had no immediate comment.

The protesters, meanwhile, stepped up their pressure, announcing a campaign of civil disobedience to block roads throughout the city. Two groups of protesters left the rally at one point in the evening, with one heading in the direction of Saakashvili's residence and the other toward the headquarters of the main state television channel.

Police have not intervened and said the protesters could remain in front of parliament as long as they liked. It was unclear how police would react to the blocking of city traffic.

Protesters also accuse Saakashvili of betraying his promises of democratic reform and embarrassing his country with his erratic behavior. He also is criticized for not doing enough to fight poverty and high unemployment.

"Saakashvili should step down, there is no doubt," said Zurab Chkheidze, 33. "We need free media. We are simply psychologically tired of this person and his government."

The president portrayed the protests as showing the strength of Georgia's civil society. Noting that they did not spark violence, Saakashvili said: "Yesterday was an important day for democracy: One part of society expressed its opinion."

The demonstrations were reminiscent of the bloodless protests of the Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power five years ago. But the fragmented opposition does not appear to have the necessary support to stage a similar revolt.

Saakashvili's party still has broad support throughout Georgia, where many people say they are tired of the political squabbling.

This week's protests follow similar demonstrations in two other former Soviet republics, Moldova and Ukraine, where opposition leaders also charge that democratically elected governments have failed to deliver on their promises of reform and prosperity.

Georgians once widely admired Saakashvili, 41, as an energetic, pro-Western reformist, but many were disillusioned by what they describe as his authoritarian bent. Criticism of his government was all but silenced during the war, as Georgians came together in the face of the Russian invasion, but opposition has slowly galvanized in recent months.

The war badly strained relations between Russia and the West. Like the president, the opposition wants closer ties with the United States and Europe, but considers the antagonism between Saakashvili and Russia's leaders to hurt Georgia's interests.

Saakashvili's critics also see the war as making it even more unlikely for Georgia to be offered NATO membership anytime soon. They also bristle at his close ties with some U.S. officials, seen as undermining Georgia's independence.