Thousands of opposition supporters rallied Sunday in the Georgian capital Tbilisi as the Black Sea nation’s government faces mounting accusations of backsliding on democracy.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Georgian parliament for a rally organised by the country’s main opposition force, the United National Movement (UNM), founded by jailed ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili.
Protesters waved Georgian, Ukrainian and European Union flags and held a huge banner that read “For European future.”
The crowd chanted “Long live Misha!”, referring by his diminutive to Saakashvili, who is serving a six-year jail term for abuse of power — a conviction that international rights groups have condemned as politically motivated.
Doctors have said the pro-Western reformer is at risk of death from a litany of serious conditions which he developed in custody.
The ruling Georgian Dream party’s government faces accusations of jailing opponents, silencing independent media, covertly collaborating with the Kremlin and leading the country astray from its EU membership path.
Addressing the rally, UNM chairman Levan Khabeishvili listed protesters’ demands that included the “liberation of political prisoners and implementing reforms” demanded by the EU as a condition for granting Tbilisi a formal candidate status.
“(The) Georgian government is being controlled from Moscow and our obligation is to save our homeland from Russian stooges,” former Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili told the crowd.
“We are freedom-loving people, part of the European family, we reject Russian slavery.”
One of the demonstrators, 27-year-old painter Luka Kavsadze, told AFP: “Our struggle will be peaceful but uncompromised and will lead us to where we belong — the European Union.”
Last month, tens of thousands took to the streets in Tbilisi after parliament gave initial backing to a draft law “on foreign agents”, similar to the legislation used in Russia to suppress dissent.
The bill, which has sparked strong criticism from the European Union and the United States, was dropped under pressure from street protests that saw police use tear gas and water cannon to disperse crowds.
The ruling party has insisted it remains committed to Georgia’s EU and NATO membership bids, enshrined in the constitution, and supported — according to opinion polls — by 80 percent of the population.
But party leaders have stepped up anti-Western rhetoric after Washington last week banned visas for four powerful judges in Georgia over alleged corruption.
The move marked the latest toughening of Washington’s approach towards an ally after concerns of a shift in Tbilisi toward Russia.
Georgia applied for EU membership together with Ukraine and Moldova days after Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbour in February 2022.
Last June, EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kiev and Chisinau but said Tbilisi must implement reforms first.