Thousands rally in Georgia against government promised reforms

Irakli METREVELI
Georgians began protesting in front of the Parliament building in Tbilisi last week (AFP Photo/Vano SHLAMOV)

Tbilisi (AFP) - Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied on Monday in the Georgian capital for the fifth consecutive day as the increasingly unpopular ruling party's promise of sweeping reforms failed to appease mass demonstrations.

Following four days of protests, Georgia's powerful oligarch and ruling Georgian Dream party chief Bidzina Ivanishvili announced "large-scale political reform."

Parliamentary elections next year will now be held under a proportional voting system, he told a news conference on Monday, meeting a key demand of protesters who denounce the existing set-up as favouring the ruling party.

"We will have a parliament where all the existing political actors will be represented," Ivanishvili said.

The protests, which erupted on Thursday, have seen thousands take to the streets of Tbilisi and clashes erupt with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Ivanishvili's announcement visibly failed to mollify protesters, who also want a snap election and the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia.

On Monday evening, thousands of protesters gathered, for the fifth consecutive day, outside Georgia's parliament building, blocking traffic in Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue.

Many welcomed Ivanishvili's initiative as a tentative success but vowed to keep pressure on the government until their two remaining demands -- Gakharia's resignation and the liberation of detained protesters -- are met.

"We snatched from Ivanishvili's hands a first concession but this is only the beginning of his end," 45-year-old librarian, Shota Nodia, said. "Our ultimate goal is Georgia's de-oligarchisation."

Another protester, 59-year-old engineer Anton Aladashvili, said: "An interior minister who ordered to fire rubber bullets -- without a warning -- at peaceful demonstrators, at teenagers, must resign and face justice."

- 'Partial victory' -

Georgia's main opposition force, ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), said Ivanishvili's concessions were "only a partial victory."

The party would insist on holding early parliamentary polls after the electoral reforms are finalised, one of its leaders, Grigol Vashadze, told journalists.

Vashadze said mass rallies would continue until Gakharia resigns and the more than 100 protesters behind bars -- whom he referred to as "political prisoners" -- are freed.

The protests erupted after a Russian lawmaker addressed parliament from the speaker's seat last week, a hugely provocative move for two countries whose ties remain strained after a brief war in 2008.

The rallies evolved into a broader movement against Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman widely believed to be calling the shots in Georgia.

The first day of the protests saw a violent police crackdown that left 160 demonstrators and 80 police officers injured. More than 300 people were arrested.

Raising fears of the possible arrest of opposition leaders, Ivanishvili said Monday that both those who provoked the violence and those who used excessive force "must be punished".

He has accused opposition leaders of inciting protesters to storm parliament -- a claim they have denied.

- Russia tightens wine controls -

Placards at rallies have taken aim not only at Ivanishvili but also Russian President Vladimir Putin who, in response to the protests suspended air links between the two countries.

On Monday, Russian consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor also said it had noticed a "deterioration" in the quality of Georgian wine and had "tightened control" of all Georgian alcoholic beverages entering Russia. Russia is a crucial market for Georgian wine exports.

Relations between Georgia and Soviet-era master Russia have long been tense over Tbilisi's efforts to join the European Union and NATO.

The confrontation culminated in a war over Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August 2008.

After the conflict, which claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers and civilians from both sides, Moscow recognised South Ossetia and another separatist enclave, Abkhazia, as independent states where it then stationed permanent military bases.

Tbilisi and its Western allies denounced the move as an "illegal military occupation" and insist it must end.