TBILISI, GEORGIA — They crammed into the streets by the tens of thousands Thursday, students and pensioners and merchants. They stood on the same scrap of ground, in front of the Stalinist stone hulk of the Georgian parliament building, demanding democracy and screaming the same slogan: Tzadi! (Go!)
This time, adoring crowds were not gathered to sweep the young, flamboyant Mikheil Saakashvili to power. Little more than five years after they cheered the U.S.-backed politician into the presidency, people returned with an air of disgust, in the hope of shaming him into a resignation.
Saakashvili is besieged by protest in his own capital, with a broad consortium of opposition figures -- including some former members of his government and onetime political allies -- vowing to keep the crowds in the street until he steps down. Opposition leaders insulted and reviled the president Thursday, calling him a coward and a womanizer and mocking his moments of public fear.
"When so many ask for his attention, he should go out to his people, but he is not like that," Conservative Party leader Zviad Dzidziguri told the crowd.
"He's a rabbit. Some of our boys are taking carrots to his residence. . . . It's all of our shame to see this person as the head of our country."
Against a backdrop of growing popular disaffection, Saakashvili's presidency has been punctuated by moments of scandal. His government has shut down critical news media, beaten and tear-gassed peaceful demonstrators, and, most disastrously, charged into an ill-advised war with Russia that in effect left Georgia's two breakaway republics under Russian occupation.
At the same time, roads were fixed, electrical service expanded and a notoriously corrupt traffic police corps was purged. Street crime decreased and foreign investment rose. Saakashvili lobbied hard for Georgia to turn away from Russian influence and toward the West, and cultivated ambitions to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
But the soaring rhetoric and bread-and-butter achievements did little to quiet Saakashvili's growing chorus of critics, especially as Georgians feel the pinch of the global financial crisis. One by one, many of Saakashvili's former allies from the so-called Rose Revolution have peeled off to join the opposition, complaining that the president is becoming more autocratic.
The political crisis gripping Georgia is the fruit not only of Saakashvili's missteps and ambitions, but also of U.S. efforts to gain influence in a traditionally Russian-dominated region by supporting democratic, pro-Western governments in the former Soviet Union.
Critics here say that, in its eagerness to shore up Georgia's fledgling democracy, the United States ignored signs that Saakashvili's government was veering into heavy-handed rule. Instead of supporting the country and its institutions, they say, the U.S. backed a man.
"Support for democracy became support for Saakashvili," said Salome Zourabichvili, a former foreign minister. President George W. Bush "proclaimed too early that we were a beacon of democracy, without asking us to prove it."
Thursday's demonstration brings Tbilisi full circle: Open-ended protests are underway again. Bush, who was so adored here that a major thoroughfare now bears his name, is out of office. Georgia's political future, at home and abroad, is murky.
Facing this round of protests, the government appears determined to avoid more criticism. The demonstrators have every right to gather peacefully, officials say repeatedly, and can keep up their protests as long as they like. The government ordered police to keep a low profile and consulted Western European security officials for advice on crowd management, the Interior Ministry said.
But no matter how long the demonstrations continue, Georgian officials say, Saakashvili won't resign. His term doesn't expire until 2013.
"It's their constitutional right," Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said. "They can call for his resignation, but they won't get it."
With both sides steeling themselves for a standoff, it wasn't clear how long the demonstrations would drag on. Nor is there any charismatic leader who stands out as a clear alternative to Saakashvili.
"As a plain citizen of the country, I don't know the opposition's plans," said Shalva Pichkhadze, a political analyst and head of the Georgia for NATO organization. "It will be a war of patience and nerves. They'll both wait for their rivals to make a mistake and violate the law."
Pressed tightly together in the street Thursday, Georgians split sunflower seeds with their teeth, dragged on cigarettes and idly discussed who would be the best person to replace Saakashvili.
"The Americans are right!" a white-haired man exclaimed to his neighbors. "The president should be more than 42 years old." President Obama is 47; Saakashvili is 41.
"Maybe we should just wait until Misha gets older," cracked another man, using Saakashvili's nickname.
Gathered on the 20th anniversary of the slaughter of unarmed Georgian demonstrators by Soviet troops, opposition leaders drew unabashed parallels between the struggle against Soviet power and the current fight to unseat Saakashvili.
"Twenty years ago our people were an example of heroism in the fight for independence, unity and freedom. Today we have to show the same," said Eka Beselia of the Movement for United Georgia. "Today we start a fight to stop the president, and we won't step down. We won't give up. We'll go until the end."