TBILISI (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of people protested in Georgia’s capital on Monday against President Mikheil Saakashvili, who they said had stolen victory for his ruling party in last week’s parliamentary election.
Opponents massed in front of the parliament building in central Tbilisi, scene of protests that brought Saakashvili to power in 2003 on a wave of optimism he would reform the tiny Caucasus nation.
The U.S.-educated lawyer’s democratic credentials are under intense scrutiny after he used riot police to crush protests last November, and the opposition say he has rigged presidential and parliamentary elections, including the May 21 vote.
A Reuters reporter estimated that up to 40,000 people attended the demonstration after an Independence Day military parade, making it the biggest protest rally since Saakashvili’s January inauguration.
Opposition leaders said more than 100,000 had gathered.
“We want these elections to be cancelled and we want this parliament to be abolished,” Salome Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister who fell out with Saakashvili, told the crowd.
Some protesters carried an effigy of Saakashvili with a banner saying “Vote Thief” while others chanted “Misha go! Misha go!” Misha is a short form for the name Mikheil.
Most opposition parties joined the rally.
Georgia lies at the heart of the Caucasus, where the United States and Russia are jostling for influence over oil and gas transit routes from the Caspian Sea.
Saakashvili, who presents his country as a rare beacon of democracy in the former Soviet Union, hopes to convince the West to defy Russian objections and offer Georgia membership of the NATO military alliance.
Official results show Saakashvili’s United National Movement won about 120 out of the parliament’s 150 seats, a constitutional majority that cements his hold on power.
European monitors said the May 21 election did not live up to Georgia’s democratic potential and that it had verified cases of intimidation. But international observers said the vote had expressed the overall will of the people.
Opposition leaders said they would prevent parliament from convening next month by forming a human cordon around it. They have vowed to boycott the new parliament.
“We won’t allow a new parliament to gather and to start working,” David Gamkrelidze, a leader of the opposition bloc which took second place in the elections, told the rally.
Opposition deputies tried to enter the parliament building on Monday but were barred by special service troops. The rally dispersed after a few hours.
Koba Davitashvili, a former Saakashvili ally who turned on his former boss and is now an opposition leader, called for the president to recognize the vote had been rigged.
“If Saakashvili does not recognize the election as falsified then the people will move towards the place where he currently sits and demand an answer from him,” he told the crowd.
Before the opposition march, Saakashvili presided over Independence Day celebrations including a parade of soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent congratulations on the holiday and said Moscow wanted good relations with Tbilisi.
“I count on constructive cooperation between our countries in the interests of developing good neighborly relations and the strengthening of stability and security in the Caucasus,” Medvedev said in the note, which was published by the Kremlin.