April 8, 2009 / 1:49 PM / 10 years ago

Calls for calm in Georgia ahead of mass rallies

TBILISI (Reuters) - The government of Georgia and the influential Georgian Orthodox Church appealed for calm on Wednesday as the opposition prepared mass demonstrations to demand the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili speaks with U.S.S .Klakring in the background at the Black Sea port of Batumi, April 2, 2009. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze/Pool

The opposition expects to being tens of thousands into the streets of the capital Tbilisi on Thursday at the start of daily protests aimed at forcing Saakashvili out of office.

The president’s opponents say he has an authoritarian streak and has stifled democratic reforms promised during the Rose Revolution that swept him to power in 2003.

War with Russia last year, when Moscow crushed a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia, has emboldened critics who say Saakashvili, 41, has made too many mistakes to run the former Soviet republic until 2013.

Analysts say tensions could lead to unrest, either from frustrated demonstrators or heavy-handed police, who used rubber bullets and tear gas to crush the last major demonstrations against Saakashvili in November 2007.

Prime Minister Nika Gilauri promised that police would tread lightly. “Police have been given orders not to aggravate protesters,” he told reporters. “Police won’t be seen near the protest rally.”

He said protests were a part of democratic life but risked harming the Georgian economy. “If they last a long time it will definitely hurt Georgia, not the Georgian government.”

The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, urged security forces not to intervene.

“Any person, any soldier, who raises his hand against his brother is unable to defend his motherland effectively,” he said during a church service.

Ambassadors accredited in Tbilisi issued a statement calling on the authorities and opposition “to show responsible behaviour and commitment to democratic principles ... to express their positions within the legal framework, and to avoid violence.”

Analysts say they have doubts about the unity of the opposition, its strength of leadership and the level of support for it beyond Tbilisi. A protracted stand-off could play into the hands of hardliners, they add.

The authorities have added to fears of violence. They said last month they had uncovered a plot to overthrow the government. Police arrested 10 men alleged to have links with the opposition and released secretly filmed video of them apparently buying weapons.

The government says it suspects the hand of Russia. The opposition dismisses the allegations as a smear campaign.

Writing by Matt Robinson, Editing by Jonathan Wright

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