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Somber Georgia Marks Rose Revolution


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia marked the fifth anniversary of its "Rose Revolution" in somber mood on Sunday, with President Mikheil Saakashvili urging unity after a disastrous war with Russia in August.

There was none of the celebration of previous years after the 2003 revolution that forced the resignation of long time leader Eduard Shevarnadze and brought to power Saakashvili's young, pro-Western government on a promise of democratic reform.

The revolution has rapidly lost its shine. Economic liberalisation and growth have been overshadowed by accusations of authoritarianism that critics say has limited media freedom, compromised the judiciary and stifled opponents.

War in August, when Russia intervened in its ex-Soviet neighbour to repel a Georgian assault to retake breakaway South Ossetia, has raised fresh questions of Saakashvili's leadership and emboldened his opponents.

"We mark the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution facing great difficulties, facing a very powerful aggressor," Saakashvili said in a televised address late on Saturday. "We need unity to overcome all these problems, and we need willingness to continue reforms."

He appealed for people to give aid to refugees from the fighting as a way to mark the anniversary.

Saakashvili remains popular, but faces growing criticism since the five-day war in August. The conflict, which further strained West-Russia relations, created tens of thousands of refugees and scared off foreign investors who look unlikely to return amid the global financial crisis.

Nino Burjanadze, a co-author of the Rose Revolution and potential challenger for the presidency, was set to formally inaugurate her new opposition party on Sunday having split with Saakashvili in early 2008.

Some 200 opposition activists demonstrated outside the Imedi television station, a former opposition broadcaster shut down by masked police in November 2007 during a brutal crackdown to end days of protests against Saakashvili.

Imedi is back on air, but now toes a government line.

"Freedom of speech in Georgia is under serious threat today, and we're not talking only about Imedi but all television stations in Georgia," said Kakha Kukava, a leader of the opposition Conservative Party.

U.S. President George W. Bush issued a statement on Saturday praising the revolution, and the U.S. warship USS Barry anchored off the Black Sea coast to take part in a community project in Georgia's port of Batumi.
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