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Saakashvili Delivers Annual Address Amid Protests, Scuffles


Saakashvili Delivers Last Presidential Address Amid Growing Crisis
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WATCH: Saakashvili Delivers His Last Annual Address As President

TBILISI -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili delivered an annual address in Tbilisi amid a growing political crisis in the country that forced him to change the venue and time of his speech.

Speaking on February 8 from his office in the presidential palace after being blocked from his original venue by protests, Saakashvili said he had fundamental differences with the parliament controlled by his rival, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, but called for "cohabitation and cooperation" with Ivanishvili's ruling coalition.

"First thing, what they want is to move Georgia's parliament from Kutaisi to Tbilisi. I categorically disagree with this, and every responsible member of the minority also disagrees," Saakashvili said.

"This is the main, the chief difference between us and the Georgian government. They were very clear in voicing their motivation for moving the parliament from Kutaisi to Tbilisi. They, the government, want to establish effective control over the parliament."

He also said that the two sides differed over how Georgia's president should be elected.

"The second thing we, the minority, as well as myself as president disagree with is the new initiative to cancel direct presidential elections in Georgia," Saakashvili said. "This is why they need to have a [parliamentary] majority, and they recently voiced this openly and prematurely. This is what the fight is all about, so that the next elections are not held in Georgia."

Appeal For Calm

Saakashvili had to postpone planned remarks at the National Library when his access to it was blocked by some 200 protesters, including former political prisoners.

Scuffles broke out when protesters barred officials from Saakashvili's party from entering the library building for the president's planned speech.

Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava (center) scuffles with protesters in Tbilisi.
Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava (center) scuffles with protesters in Tbilisi.
Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that "political opponents -- namely, members of [President Saakashvili's] National Movement -- arrived precisely from the side where groups of people had amassed."

"Therefore, they did not use the corridors that had been organized by the police. We have grounds to suspect that they deliberately caused this provocation,” Gharibashvili said.

The U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland told protesters to remain peaceful.

"The message today, tonight, we have to be focused on one thing: If we have a problem, we resolve it through peaceful democratic means," Norland said. "There are clearly issues. These are issues that the president and the government have to resolve. I understand [you] completely. But the one message tonight is if you have a problem, if you have a grievance, it should be resolved through peaceful democratic means."

The protesters had said they planned to stage a so-called "corridor of disgrace" for the president before he entered the building of the library. Some said they would "not let the president in until he answers the question why [political prisoners] were illegally arrested and sentenced."

WATCH: Protests outside the National Library, where Saakashvili was originally expected to speak.
Protesters Block Saakashvili Speech
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Journalist and Saakashvili opponent Zaza Davitaia told reporters in front of the National Library building that Saakashvili was not the true president and had "grabbed power through forged elections."

Saakashvili's presidential term expires in October; he is barred from seeking reelection.

The Georgian president’s annual address is usually delivered in the parliament, but Saakashvili decided not to speak there after legislators voted on February 7 to delay his speech indefinitely.

Parliamentary speaker David Usupashvili told journalists on February 7 that the speech was postponed because of the ongoing debates over constitutional amendments that would limit the presidential right to dissolve the government without parliamentary approval.

The majority in the parliament is held by the Georgian Dream coalition led by Ivanishvili.

In his speech, Saakashvili rejected any suggestions that he would seek to dissolve parliament.

"This right [of the president to dissolve the parliament and the cabinet] is rather ephemeral in the constitution," he said. "And I have repeatedly pointed out that I am not going to make any use of that right, especially just a few months after elections."

"I see all too clearly the political dynamics and I know very well that any kind of attempts to dissolve the government now -- three, four, five months [after elections] -- is self-destructive for a political force that initiates such a move."

The crisis underlines tensions in Georgia after the long-ruling president's National Movement party was defeated in parliamentary elections last year. His opponent, Ivanishvili, became prime minister, forcing a difficult cohabitation between them.

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