TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — About 10,000 supporters of Georgia's embattled pro-Western president gathered in the capital Friday for a rally testing their strength before October's election.
Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement lost October's parliamentary election to the Georgian Dream bloc led by Russia-friendly billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became prime minister. Saakashvili's authority has been further weakened by a constitutional reform that has shifted powers from the presidency to Parliament and the prime minister.
Saakashvili has been on the defensive since the parliamentary vote and some of his top lieutenants have faced abuse of office charges.
Before Friday's rally, Ivanishvili's party leveled new accusations against the president, accusing him of wasting government money on foreign trips. Saakashvili has rejected the criticism, saying it helped boost the ex-Soviet nation's prestige and attract investment.
"Billions of dollars have been invested in Georgia as a result of these visits," he said, adding that the charges reflected the Cabinet's "nervousness" before the demonstration of his supporters.
Speaking at Friday's rally, Saakashvili praised his supporters for coming to "defend a free and independent Western-leaning Georgia."
"We have come here with love and hope, but the enraged government is threatening us," he told the crowd that chanted his name in support. "They have scared some and lured some others to their side, but people who gathered here aren't afraid and won't be sold."
He hinted at Ivanishvili's alleged pro-Russian stance, saying "we won't betray the motherland and surrender it to the enemy."
Ivanishvili, who earned his fortune in Russia, has denied similar Saakashvili's accusations in the past and pledged to maintain the course toward Georgia's integration into the West. But he also has pledged to repair the ties with Moscow that were ruptured in the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war that ended with Moscow recognizing two breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Ivanishvili's Cabinet has already reached a deal with Moscow to resume the exports of Georgian wine and mineral water that were banned by Russia amid the buildup of tensions before the war.