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Georgia: Opposition protests in Tbilisi (Updated)

Twenty years after clashes with Soviet troops outside the main government building in Tbilisi left 20 dead, the Georgian capital today braced itself for possible problems as the country's opposition staged its first major rally since the August war with Russia.

Yesterday, Al Jazeera English's Matthew Collin posted a video report and backgrounder setting the scene for today's rally on his blog, This is Tbilisi Calling.

The Georgian capital is in a state of nervous tension, waiting and wondering what will happen tomorrow – April 9 – the day upon which the furious and embittered opposition has declared it will start the process of ousting President Mikheil Saakashvili through sheer force of numbers on the streets. Opposition supporters will start rallying outside parliament at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and their leaders say they won't leave until Saakashvili is gone too – however long it takes.

Despite some initial concerns about internet access, the GIPA Journalism School Blog has been covering events as they unfold.

We are journalism students in Tbilisi, Georgia, and we started this blog as a class project to cover the April 9, 2009 protest organized around the country, demanding that Georgian President Mikael Saakashvili to resign.

This blog contains our English-language coverage of the event. We are dedicated to providing objective, fact-based, balanced coverage. [...]

In the first entry posted yesterday, Sherqqizi’s Blog introduced readers to the newly formed Why? public movement and says that local activists are finding a new lease of life since the November 2003 Rose Revolution.

The activities of “Why?” Public movement were started by seven activists secretly. The organization began to spread banners, stickers in the street at nights. But three weeks ago they held press-conference in an underground in Freedom Square and began to open activity. They thinks that this action means to go out from darkness to freedom. The movement has 160 members from Tbilisi and 20 from Batumi. Now they are working to draw in more people from whole Georgia. They have 15 coordinators which are responsible to draw in the movement.

At time of writing, a special Twitter channel, #tbilisi, has estimates of the crowd at anywhere between 20-40,000 people. However, in an entry posted early this morning, the GIPA Journalism School Blog said that the opposition hoped for larger numbers.

More than a dozen opposition parties hope to gather between 150,000-200,000 people in front of Parliament on April 9th — and the government officials said they have no plans to stop them, unless the crowd gets violent.

A few hours later at 5am local time, one of the contributers, Alibayli’s Blog, said that a candlelight vigils had already started.

About 60 people were gathered in front of parliament around 5 am to leave flowers and burn candles to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Day of National Unity, when 20 people were killed and scores injured when Soviet troops fired upon protesters demonstrating against the Soviet Union.

[...]

All of the early risers planned to return to parliament at 2 p.m., though not all are planning to support the opposition groups. Gogoladze, for example, is an opposition supporter. But pensioner Natella Turmanishvili said that she will come to the protest to heckle opposition supporters.

[...]

In preparation for the day’s demonstrations, an iron stage and 1 meter high wood fence were constructed in front of the Parliament building.

Soon after mid-day, Ketevan22’s Blog reported that 5,000 opposition supporters had gathered in different parts of the city and were marching towards the Georgian parliament. The blog also says that traffic was obstructed by demonstrators on the city's main central street.

Avlabari Metro Station was the starting place for the Conservative Party and Movement for the United Georgia. They reported choosing the place intentionally because the new administration offices of the president are also located at Avlabari district. By 12 p.m. nearly 1000 people had already gathered at this spot. Leaders of the party are waiting for more protesters and at 1 p.m. they started a march towards the Parliament.

[...]

Protesters coming from Georgian Public Broadcaster and Tbilisi State University are going to join near Philarmonic Hall. Because of the large number of people the movement of the cars is stopped on Rustaveli Avenue.

As protesters gathered outside the parliament building, the GIPA Journalism School Blog says an anonymous expat researcher in Tbilisi estimated the crowd at a little over 50,000, a figure largely in line with international wire estimates.

Just how does one estimate the size of a crowd? It depends on whom you ask.

Reuters calls it 50,000 while Agence France Presse (AFP) estimated 60,000, while Radio Free Liberty reported 100,000. Civil.ge reported that opposition leaders estimated 100,000 but they guessed much less by 3:30 p.m.

Georgian government officials downplayed the figures: Eka Guladze, first deputy minister of Internal Affairs, said observers reported seeing about 25,000 people.

[...]

But we put our money on a locally based, well-respected European researcher who prefers to remain anonymous. He’s applying a “leading international formula” based on the square meters of space covered by protesters and the crowd density.

His crowd estimate: 53,000.

Not that many Georgians will get to hear otherwise with Ketevan22’s Blog, one of the GIPA bloggers, noting that Georgian Public TV was not reporting live. The blog says some opposition leaders and protesters marched on the station.

[...] Kostava Street is almost blocked by the protesters. Conservative Party member Bezhan Gunava attempted to break into the broadcaster’s building.

Though they broadcast the program during their regular news hours at 12 and 4 p.m. and had plans to show the protest at 8 p.m., they did not, as opposition organizers demand, show the protests live consistently between 2 p.m.-8 p.m. The facility is protected by the police and Special Forces who are located throughout the building.

The blog also says that the day passed without incident, something that tweets on #tbilisi also indicated as the evening drew to a close.

dv0rsky: Well, this day in #tbilisi was surprisingly calm. I will write later an article about it (and post a link here of course)

mhikaric: @perspectivelute I think everyone, even those who seek change, are weary of upheaval. #tbilisi

perspectivelute: Impressive how calm everybody has been in #tbilisi – not just the lack of violence, but few histrionic statements. unusual for Georgia ;)

fieldreports: If the call for beers among int'l media is anything to go by at the #tbilisi marriott then protest coverage is winding down for tonight

More updates will be posted Global Voices Online if and when any new events occur. In the meantime, it's worth keeping an eye on the GIPA Journalism School Blog as well as Twitter at #tbilisi.

There are are also live updates from the mobile phone of Frontline Club blogger Guy Degen on Twitter (text), Utter (audio) and Qik (video).

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