Monday, September 1, 2008
Million Georgians Rally Against Russian 'Aggression'
TBILISI -- More than a million Georgians across the former Soviet republic have protested against Russian military action and the Kremlin's backing for the country's two separatist regions.
Many waving the red-and-white Georgian flag, protesters linked arms in the capital Tbilisi in a "human chain" that snaked through the city under cloudy skies.
Flags flew from balconies and protesters chanted "Long Live Georgia!" and "Stop Russia!"
Countrywide, police said over 1 million people took part in what authorities said was a show of unity after Russia this month crushed a Georgian bid to retake breakaway South Ossetia from pro-Moscow separatists.
The figure, which could not be independently confirmed, would account for more than a fifth of the Black Sea state's population of 4.5 million.
"Today we can say that Georgia is not alone, because the whole world is standing beside us," President Mikheil Saakashvili told the crowd on Tbilisi's Freedom Square.
Moscow poured tanks and troops across its southern border to repel the Georgian assault ordered by Saakashvili, and last week recognized South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states.
The protest coincided with a meeting in Brussels of European Union leaders, who were expected to announce a review of ties with Moscow but stop short of concrete punishment.
'Day Of Unity'
"This brutal power decided that the revival of Russian imperialism would start in Georgia, but I would like to tell them [Russia] that this revival will be buried for good in Georgia," Saakashvili said.
He said the protest marked the largest gathering in Georgia since the South Caucasus country of split from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Opposition leaders in Georgia have been reluctant to criticize Saakashvili for fear of being branded traitors in a time of war. But they have promised to ask tough questions of his leadership once peace returns.
"It's a day of unity," said artist Natela Zarandia. "We want to show the entire world that Georgians are not afraid of anything, and I hope the world will hear our message."
Russia has withdrawn most of its forces in line with a French-brokered cease-fire deal, but has kept soldiers and equipment in "security zones" outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Moscow says are designed to prevent further Georgian aggression.
Hundreds of people died and tens of thousands were displaced in the brief war, which erupted on August 7-8. Georgia alleges that militias acting under the wing of the Russian military have torched Georgian villages and killed civilians.
"The result of Russia's aggression against Georgia is our unification," musician Achiko Guledani, 34, said, standing in line holding hands with members of his band.
"Georgia was never as strong as it is now, and that's why we'll win," he said.