TBILISI (Reuters) -- Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili recalled on January 23 his "personal tragedy" of last year's war with Russia while rejecting opposition calls to resign during a marathon Q&A session with the Georgian public.
The four-hour televised show was part of fresh drive by the president to answer criticism of his record on democracy and freedom of speech since coming to power on the back of the 2003 Rose Revolution.
A mixture of prerecorded and live studio questions were dominated by social issues, concerns about the economy, and the plight of Georgian villagers displaced by the fighting.
There was little scrutiny of Saakashvili's fateful decision to launch an assault on breakaway South Ossetia on August 7. Russia's devastating counterstrike drove the Georgian Army from the region, which threw off Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s.
Moscow has recognized South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent, secured by Russian troops.
While Saakashvili has come under fierce criticism from opponents who say he dragged ex-Soviet Georgia into a war it could not possibly win, analysts say the opposition is divided and has failed to build momentum since the conflict.
"It was a great personal tragedy for me," Saakashvili said. "I received the strongest blow in August, and they were the most difficult moments of my life."
"This evil force invaded my country, and killed my children," he said, adding: "I am a refugee together with you, and I am a father of killed children along with you."
'Not Planning To Die'
Dozens of opponents demonstrated outside the television studio and accused the president of mimicking Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who holds an annual phone-in with the public on Russian television.
"What does Saakashvili have left to learn from Putin?" opposition Republican Party senior official David Usupashvili said. "He should stop ruling the country with PR stunts and allow free and fair elections."
Georgia's former envoys to Russia and the United Nations have rounded on Saakashvili, saying he was duped by Russian provocation into attacking South Ossetia. A former ally and co-author of the Rose Revolution, Nino Burjanadze, has formed her own opposition party and called on Saakashvili to step down.
The 41-year-old president said he had no intention of wasting time and money on early elections. He said he was "in great shape," exercised every day, and started work at 11 a.m.
"I'm not planning to die, nor to step down," Saakashvili said, looking tanned and generally relaxed. "My main task right now is to save the country from economic crisis and to unify it," he said.
He said calls for him to resign and the decision of some allies to swap ranks demonstrated the strength of Georgian democracy. "If it would be otherwise, we wouldn't be a democratic country," he said. "We are not North Korea or Stalinist Soviet Union."