MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of protesters descended on Georgia's parliament Friday demanding new elections in the largest popular movement since the 2003 Rose Revolution swept President Mikheil Saakashvili to power with promises of democratic transformation.
In a scene that in its sheer numbers bore a remarkable resemblance to the bloodless uprising that toppled the government of Eduard A. Shevardnadze four years earlier, demonstrators filled the square outside parliament in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi calling for the government to release "political" prisoners and hold elections in the spring.
"Misha, you are falling," a group of young activists shouted, referring to Saakashvili, who was at a meeting outside the capital.
"I was here in 2003, but now I have a feeling of civil protest toward what's going on in the country: unfair courts and the tendencies of a police state," protester Ramaz Margishvili said. "We want to end revolution and start developing in a normal way."
Opposition leaders are angry with a decision to delay parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for April, to October so they coincide with a stepped-up presidential election. The opposition hopes to capitalize on rising public dissatisfaction with Saakashvili's party, which dominates parliament.
"The opposition believes this is the only appropriate solution for the many problems which the country is facing, since Saakashvili and the system are not able to deal with the challenges they face," David Usupashvili, chairman of the opposition Republican Party, said in a telephone interview from the square.
"The terms of the elections were changed by Saakashvili in order to ensure his own political success, and nothing else," he said. "People are ready to stand here until the government hears us."
A coalition of 10 opposition parties was overseeing the protest, but thousands of citizens who joined in, many driving in from provinces outside Tbilisi, expressed disappointment that the government had not improved life quickly enough for many Georgians despite its economic overhauls and a crackdown on corruption.
Food prices have doubled in the last few months, and unemployment remains high, despite substantial economic growth.
"Saakashvili's support base is dwindling fast. My research demonstrates that more than half of the population doesn't support the president anymore," said Ramaz Sakvarelidze, director of the Center of Public Projects, a nongovernmental organization in Tbilisi. "Right now, the numbers of people who came out to take part in the rally today far exceeds the number of people that actually took part in the Rose Revolution."
Zviad Dzidziguri, a former Saakashvili ally and chairman of the opposition Conservative Party, said that at least a dozen people have been imprisoned for political reasons.
"We didn't carry out the revolution so that there would be political prisoners again in our country," he said in a telephone interview. "We carried out the Rose Revolution together with Saakashvili, but our best hopes failed to materialize. He got carried away with the power that he got, and decided that he can run the country any way he wants it."
The political landscape was rocked in late September with the arrest of Saakashvili's former defense minister, Irakly Okruashvili, on charges of political negligence and corruption. The arrest came days after Okruashvili formed an opposition party, accused Saakashvili of ordering the "liquidation" of "certain influential and important people" and overseeing a government that selectively targeted individuals for corruption prosecutions while protecting friends.
The arrest sparked immediate public protests, but Okruashvili recanted less than two weeks later and announced he was abandoning politics. He was released on $6 million bail, and reportedly left the country on the eve of Friday's rally. Government officials said he was getting medical treatment abroad.
Some estimates put the number of protesters at 70,000 or more, but there was little of the tense atmosphere that characterized the event preceding Saakashvili's January 2004 election. There were few arrests and little police presence. Many protesters left as the night wore on, though opposition leaders predicted they would return this morning if there was no resolution to the standoff.
Parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze said after a meeting with opposition leaders there would be no going back on parliament's decision to amend the constitution and schedule joint presidential and parliamentary elections in October. "Our position about the elections date is very clear," she told reporters. "It will be right to hold elections in autumn from the point of view of the country's interests."
Government officials characterized the rally as a permissible expression of opinion. "We are a democratic country and such rallies are a natural thing," Konstantin Gabashvili, a lawmaker from Saakashvili's ruling Unified National Movement faction, said in a telephone interview.
"The opposition leaders say they will not leave the square unless their demands are met," he said. "But we are not going to meet their political demands."
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and special correspondent Tiko Ninua in Tbilisi contributed to this report.