TBILISI (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Georgians protested on Saturday against Russia, accusing Moscow of trying to annex the country’s breakaway regions and denouncing their own government for not doing more to defend national interests.
Critics of the government say it is too reluctant to criticize their powerful neighbor, particularly over the crisis in Ukraine, which stirs uncomfortable memories of their own, disastrous war against Russia in 2008.
Following that conflict, two breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, declared independence with Russian backing.
Moscow, which opposes Georgia’s flailing efforts to join the transatlantic NATO military alliance, has proposed a new treaty with Abkhazia, which is viewed in Tbilisi as a step toward full Russian annexation.
Protesters, led by activists and leaders of the opposition United National Movement (UNM), marched down Tbilisi’s main avenue waving the national flag and holding posters that read, “No to occupation!” and “No to annexation!”.
Many chanted: “Long live Georgia.”
“This is the clear message from the Georgian public that we will never accept the fact of our sovereignty being dismantled by (President Vladimir) Putin’s Russia,” Giga Bokeria, one of the UNM leaders, told Reuters during the march.
“It’s also a message to the government of Georgia. We need the government to focus on the country’s problems and not on political retribution.”
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been charged with exceeding his authority during his years in office, addressed the crowd from Ukraine’s capital Kiev.
“We should show the government that our nation is united, even when it faces a big threat, and when it’s about our freedom, future and independence,” Saakashvili said via live broadcast on the huge screen in front of the crowd.
Saakashvili left the South Caucasus country of 4.5 million after his second presidency ended last November, with supporters saying he is the victim of a political witch-hunt.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili has said he hopes to mend ties with Russia, but says he also wants to align Georgia more closely with Western democracies.
“I reiterate that the government steadfastly pursues its path to European and Euro-Atlantic integration, this process is irreversible,” Garibashvili said in a statement on Friday.
Western nations and their allies have been highly critical of Moscow for its annexation of Crimea in March and its support of pro-Russian separatists fighting in the east of Ukraine.
Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Crispian Balmer