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Georgian President Blasted Over Monument's Demolition

Two people were killed in the demolition of the Glory Memorial in Kutaisi.
Two people were killed in the demolition of the Glory Memorial in Kutaisi.
KUTAISI, Georgia -- It wasn't the birthday celebration Mikheil Saakashvili was hoping for.

Hundreds of angry demonstrators gathered in the western Georgian city of Kutaisi today to protest the president's decision to destroy a Soviet-era war monument in a blast that accidentally killed a local woman and her 8-year-old daughter on December 19.

Sozar Subari, the former ombudsman and a member of the opposition Alliance for Georgia, laid the blame for the incident squarely on the president's shoulders.

"These two deaths are the result of one person's whim, and Georgia is becoming a victim of this person's whims," Subari said. "It was the whim of this person to start the war last year, and then lose it in a shameful manner."

Georgian officials had originally scheduled the demolition of the Glory Memorial to coincide with the president's 42nd birthday today.

Saakashvili had hoped to build a new parliament building on the site as part of a decentralization drive to help develop cities outside the capital, Tbilisi.

'Historical Vandalism'

The initiative was unpopular from the start. Even those who supported the idea of moving the parliament to Kutaisi saw the destruction of the monument as unnecessary and an affront to the 300,000 Georgians who died in World War II.

Opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili, who formerly served as foreign minister under Saakashvili, said the demolition showed blatant disregard for Georgia's wartime sacrifices.

Zurabishvili attacked the president as a "barbarian."
"This is a memorial to those people who fought for freedom against Nazism. Georgians and non-Georgians, Europeans and Jews who were killed in World War II," Zurabishvili said.

"And if we want to forget all this, then we are a nation of barbarians, with a barbarian president who can just call up from somewhere and give an order to detonate the explosives, so that no protests can interrupt."

Georgia's political opposition had originally scheduled today's rally with the aim of blocking the demolition. But then the 46-meter-high arch was suddenly destroyed two days ahead of schedule, in an apparent attempt to avoid public scrutiny.

And after Eka Tsutskhvashvili-Jincharadze and her daughter Nino were killed by flying chunks of concrete caused by the blast, the gathering evolved into a mournful and angry demonstration against the president. (This video -- warning: graphic! -- shot on a mobile phone appears to show the tragic aftermath of the blast.)

Some Kutaisi residents said demolition crews attempted to warn local residents to take precautions during the blast. But the warnings failed to protect the mother and daughter from the force of the shattering concrete, which pummeled nearby houses and killed them as they were seeking shelter in their yard.

One Kutaisi woman said the blast crew failed to anticipate how powerful the explosion would be, pointing to the "huge distance" between the monument and neighboring homes.

"And this is our history. We have to protect our past -- only then, can we start to build something new," she added. "Why did we need this? Even without the deaths, it was the wrong thing to do. To me, it's an act of vandalism."

Personal Grudge?

Saakashvili, who was in Copenhagen at the time of the blast, flew back to Georgia the same day and has responded to the crisis by firing the regional governor and ordering the chief of the privately owned detonation crew to be detained.

A presidential spokeswoman said Saakashvili was "shocked by the tragedy" and promised that the state would provide aid and moral support to the victims' families.

But the purge has not deflected attention from what many see as yet another example of Saakashvili's arrogance and personal caprice going awry.

The president has made no secret of his dislike for the memorial's creator, 82-year-old sculptor Merab
Sculptor Merab Berdzenishvili
Berdzenishvili, who has been quietly critical of Saakashvili's regime.

A Berdzenishvili sculpture of King David the Builder -- Georgia's most revered historical figure -- was moved from central Tbilisi to an outlying street several years ago by presidential order.

Many people saw the parliament project as a pretext to tear down the Glory Memorial, saying there was ample land to build the government building without removing the sculpture.

Berdzenishvili said he was heartened by the outpouring of public anger over the destruction of the Glory Memorial, which featured an armed horseman stabbing a German soldier with a spear -- an image reminiscent of St. George slaying the dragon.

"The Kutaisi memorial is not just a memorial for the fallen. For me, it was also an opportunity to express my thoughts and feelings about the war," Berdzenishvili said.

"It's an antiwar statement. It's a very complex composition, with a lot of interwoven motifs. Every epoch has its dragons. And for the 20th century, it was fascism."

Kremlin Criticism

Russia was quick to criticize the memorial's destruction, with the Russian Foreign Ministry saying in a statement that the Georgian authorities had "committed an act of public vandalism, insulting the feelings of any civilized person."

"This yet another disgraceful act by the current leadership in Tbilisi in its maniacal drive to erase the historical memories of its own people," the statement said.

The controversy over the memorial and the fatal blast has almost completely overshadowed Saakashvili's original plan to bring the parliament to Kutaisi, an initiative the president hoped would bring greater prominence to the economically depressed city.

One Kutaisi man argued that the parliament project could have proceeded without the loss of history and human lives.

"I think they should have left it as it is. And as for the parliament, I think it could be beneficial for Kutaisi, but this shouldn't have happened," he said.

"I have no explanation for how this happened."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent Giorgi Gvakharia contributed to this report.

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