TBILISIÂ – Georgia’s opposition vowed on Tuesday to press on with street protests and mount a legal challenge to a presidential election which it says incumbent Mikhail Saakashvili rigged in his favor.
Saakashvili, a pro-Western leader who wants to take the former Soviet republic into NATO, has since the January 5 election allowed protests, met his opponents and promised them places in government.
The government has also relented to an opposition demand by changing the composition of the Public Broadcaster’s executive board, which protesters had accused of being biased.
“That’s our first victory. We’ll get many others in the future,” Leila Bablidze, an English language teacher, said at a noisy opposition rally outside the Public Broadcaster’s headquarters in the centre of the capital, Tbilisi.
Many of the crowd wore white scarves — a symbol adopted by Saakashvili’s opponents — and shouted anti-government slogans.
A Reuters correspondent estimated about 7,000 people took part in the protest. Police put the crowd at about 3,000.
Georgia lies at the centre of the Caucasus, a volatile region which hosts a major oil pipeline running from the Caspian Sea to Europe and the stage of a power struggle between the United States and Russia.
Official results showed Saakashvili, a 40-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer, won 53 percent of votes in the election — just enough to avoid a second-round run-off.
Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets since the election although numbers have fallen short of the opposition’s expectations.
The opposition will submit a complaint to a Tbilisi court demanding that the election results be declared void because of vote rigging, opposition spokeswoman Nino Sturua said.
Saakashvili plans to be inaugurated for a second term on January 20, but the government says it has opened talks with the opposition on issues including control over state media to ease tensions.
Saakashvili, who surged to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution, called the snap election following international protests after he crushed anti-government demonstrations violently and declared a state of emergency.
Europe’s main democracy and rights watchdog said the January 5 election was consistent with most international standards but marred by significant shortcomings such as intimidation and the president’s use of his office for campaign purposes.