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Youth opposition protest in Tbilisi on March 7 (InterPressNews) Thousands of protesters rallied on March 9 in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, against President Mikheil Saakashvili ahead of parliamentary elections. Opposition forces are calling for the results of presidential elections held earlier this year to be overturned.


Speaking at the rally, opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze called for the removal of the government, and warned that he and his allies would not allow authorities to steal a parliamentary vote scheduled for May.


"Today a new November begins in Georgia," Gachechiladze said, referring to demonstrations that paralyzed the capital during that month in 2007, and led to a state of emergency. "This is going to be a permanent rally and it will last until we reach our goal. And this goal is elections, free elections."


The demonstrators, who gathered in front of the parliament building, denounced government control over media and demanded fair access to television and accused Saakashvili of stealing the January 5 presidential election by fraud.


Official results gave Saakashvili 53 percent of the vote in the presidential elections, averting a runoff against his nearest rival, Gachechiladze, who won 25 percent.


Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have called the vote a "triumphant step" for democracy in Georgia, but nevertheless pointed to some irregularities.


Zviad Dzidziguri, the leader of the Conservative Party, and four other opposition leaders announced today that they were going on a hunger strike to press their demand for a runoff between Saakashvili and Gachechiladze.


Gachechiladze said the opposition will hold another rally near parliament March 11 to protest a government-backed bill revising the assembly's structure. He denounced the bill as an attempt by Saakashvili to preserve his control over parliament.


On March 8, Saakashvili urged the opposition to refrain from protesting amid heightening tensions with Russia.


Tbilisi officials have decried as "immoral and dangerous" Russia's decision on March 6 to withdraw from a CIS treaty imposing sanctions on Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.


Saakashvili was elected to the presidency in 2004 after the Rose Revolution thrust him into power. But in November 2007, he cut short his five-year term and ordered an early presidential for January after police violently dispersed antigovernment protesters. The president also imposed a state of emergency at the time.

South Caucasus

REGIONAL APPROACH, INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION: International actors often take a regional approach when dealing with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. But the three states get plenty of individual attention as well.

European Union

-- has assigned Special Envoy for South Caucasus Peter Semneby to serve as a liaison between the EU and the region. Semneby describes his role as assisting Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia "on their way to moving closer to the EU and its core values."

-- in launching the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1999, a joint declaration on relations between the EU and the Caucasus countries was adopted.

-- has included Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) on an individual basis.

-- the European Commission has a joint Delegation to Georgia and Armenia.

-- the European Commission is currently working on concluding consultations with each of the three states on individual "action plans" intended to foster closer relations with the EU.

Council of Europe

-- in 2006 launched its "Stability Pact for the South Caucasus" initiative.

NATO

-- has assigned a lone special representative, Ambassador Robert Simmons, to represent the alliance in its dealings with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

-- The NATO Parliamentary Assembly recently suggested that, "given the very different relationships that NATO has with each country and the varying level of involvement, it might be sensible to expand his office to include separate representatives for each country."

-- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have each agreed to Individual Partnership Action Plans with NATO.

-- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are all signatories to NATO's Partnership for Peace, a program designed to facilitate cooperation on security issues following the fall of the Soviet Union.

OSCE

-- under NATO's Science for Peace and Security program, NATO and the OSCE together conduct the South Caucasus River Monitoring project. The effort aims to help Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia develop their infrastructure and trans-boundary water quality.

Eurasia Foundation

-- in 1998 launched its South Caucasus Cooperation Program, an initiative to promote cross-border partnerships among Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

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