Connect to share and comment

Is Georgia teetering toward instability?

Opposition leaders vow to continue their protest until Saakashvili steps down.

Opposition supporters shout slogans during a rally in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi, April 9, 2009. About 40,000 Georgians rallied on Thursday at the start of a campaign to try to force President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign, an effort led by opponents emboldened by last year's disastrous war with Russia. (Johannes Eisele/Reuters)

TBILISI, Georgia — For the thousands who have gathered in front of parliament in the center of this Caucasus capital, Mikheil Saakashvili is a leader whose expiration date has passed. 

Standing on the exact spot where they once greeted the hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution with shouts of “Misha! Misha!” — his nickname — now they cry simply “Tsadi,” or “Leave!”

Pensioners and students, workers and intellectuals have collected here since Thursday of last week to demand the ouster of the man whom they once idolized, but now claim has failed to live up to his initial revolutionary promise. Saakashvili, they say, led their ex-Soviet state into a disastrous war against Russia last August, has shown authoritarian tendencies, and insufficiently shielded the country from the world economic crisis. 

Often the criticisms are personal, as if against a close friend — befitting a country of just 4.6 million inhabitants where politics often resembles a family fight. To his supporters, Saakashvili is young, dynamic, decisive and flamboyant, though full of quirks. To his detractors, he is impulsive, reckless and possibly emotionally unstable. 

“He is sick — we don’t need him,” said Lika Kakabadze, deputy director of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, as she gathered with up to 40,000 other demonstrators on the first day of the protests. 

“I supported him at first,” said her companion, a sharply dressed sculptor in a Timberland jacket who gave his name simply as Nodar. “Now I realize that I made a mistake.” 

This tiny country, with a population less than half that of New York City and a territory roughly that of South Carolina, is facing a protracted political struggle, which may end in violence or further instability. This matters because Georgia remains a country central to western plans for democracy and economic development in the former Soviet sphere.

The anti-Saakashvili feeling seemed to run both deep and intense on parliament square and in offshoot rallies in front of state television and the presidential residence. However, it is unclear how widespread this sentiment is among the rest of the country, and whether opposition leaders can tap into it to achieve their goal of forcing the president to resign. 

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