Thousands in Georgia march call for government to step down

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Supporters of former Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement take part in a rally in Tbilisi on March 21, 2015

Supporters of former Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement take part in a rally in Tbilisi on March 21, 2015 (AFP Photo/Vano Shlamov)

Tbilisi (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Georgians joined a protest rally Saturday in the ex-Soviet republic's capital Tbilisi to demand the government's resignation, claimed it has mishandled the battered economy.

Protesters packed Tbilisi's central Freedom Square after being called onto the streets by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), before marching towards the State Chancellery building, the seat of government.

They carried Georgian flags and placards demanding the government step down.

Saakashvili addressed the rally by video link from Brussels as the cheering crowd chanted his name.

"We are united by our shared task to liberate Georgia from the government which destroys our country," Saakashvili said in an emotional address.

"We will get Georgia back on a right track. We will win," he added.

Saakashvili's UNM party has accused the ruling Georgian Dream coalition government of mishandling the tiny Caucasus country's economy that, during the last two years, saw growth slowdown, a 30-percent currency devaluation, and rising inflation and unemployment.

Georgian Dream, assembled by former prime minister and billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, came to power in 2012 and ended a decade-long rule of staunchly pro-Western Saakashvili and his UNM party.

Ivanishvili stepped down in November 2013 to make way for his longtime ally Irakli Garibashvili, but is widely believed to still call the shots.

Scores of former top Saakashvili officials have been arrested over the last two years for alleged wrongdoing, prompting warnings from the West over selective justice and persecution of political opponents.

Accused by prosecutors of abuse of power, Saakashvili, 47, lives in a self-imposed exile in Kiev were he has served, since February, as an aide to Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko.

He refuses to return to Georgia for questioning, saying that the charges are politically motivated and that he has no confidence in the current authorities.