Tens of thousands hit Tbilisi streets in ‘largest-ever’ rally on eve of election

Around 200,000 people have reportedly come out in support of opposition party Georgian Dream in what may become the biggest ever rally to hit Tbilisi. Georgia is set to cast votes in a parliamentary poll Monday.

The Georgian capital was strewn with blue colors Saturday as the South Caucasian country’s parliamentary campaign comes to a climax.

One of my promises has already come true: all of Georgia is standing united today,” opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvilitold tens of thousands people gathered at central Freedom Square to show their support for him. “All Georgia tells the authorities…

…leave!” responded the crowd.

Supporters of the Georgian Dream opposition political party attend a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Irakli Gedenidze)
Supporters of the Georgian Dream opposition political party attend a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Irakli Gedenidze)

The authorities cannot pretend they did not know what happens in our prisons,” continued the billionaire tycoon, referring to a recent torture scandal that led to the resignations of several top officials and left President Mikhail Saakashvili playing spin-doctor for himself at the UN General Assembly.

Reports on the rally’s turnout vary, with Russia’s RIA Novosti agency estimating the demo to be 200,000 strong, while the multinational channel MTRK MIR says 300,000 people were in attendance. MIR remarks that Tbilisi’s last most massive rally was held in 2010, and gathered around 100,000 people.

Supporters of the Georgian Dream political party shout slogans during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
Supporters of the Georgian Dream political party shout slogans during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)

Tycoon-turned-politician Ivanishvili founded his public movement, Georgian Dream, in December 2011. In April 2012, it transformed into an opposition coalition, called Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia. The current election is generally viewed as a struggle between billionaire Ivanishvili, whose wealth at $6.4 billion equals nearly half of Georgia’s economic output, and President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Saakashvili’s role in Georgian history remains highly controversial. In its “Doing Business 2012” report, the World Bank named Georgia a “top reformer.” According to that assessment, the South Caucasus country, which serves as an important transit route for oil and gas to the West, showed an astounding improvement since 2005 in terms of the ease of doing business, climbing from 112th to 16th place.

Supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream Coalition shout slogans at an election rally in Tbilisi September 29, 2012. (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)
Supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream Coalition shout slogans at an election rally in Tbilisi September 29, 2012. (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

But the opposition has little praise to spare for the leader. Nino Burdzhanadze, the ex-chairperson of the Georgian Parliament and Saakashvili’s former ally, claims that “we have less democracy today than before the revolution”, as Spiegel quotes her. Like many others, Burdzhanadze accuses the president of authoritarian dictatorship that has suppressed the opposition, while engaging the country in all-around corruption and money laundering.

Saakashvili, in his turn, says the Georgian opposition are simply Kremlin agents.

Ivanishvili has taken great pains to deny the claim. During the rally, he said he did not go to politics after some foreign powers told him so, but because he could not come to terms with the escalating poverty and injustice that are choking the country.

Saakashvili’s system must be destroyed. The fate of the country is being decided at these elections,” Ivanishvili told the rally, promising to create “a truly democratic country free of violence or fear.

Georgia′s opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the leader of the Georgian Dream political party gestures during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
Georgia’s opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the leader of the Georgian Dream political party gestures during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)

A parallel opposition demonstration was held in Georgia’s second largest city, Kutaisi. Rally organizers say tens of thousands people are there.

Ivanishvili’s party, whose platform seems to be centered on displacing the incumbent president, is expected to come out as the main rival to Saakashvili’s United National Movement.

UNM’s convention Friday gathered around 70 thousand people at a central stadium in Tbilisi. On Saturday, Saakashvili also addressed voters in the port city of Poti, stressing the upcoming election may be a turning point for the country. “A force which wants to destroy everything we have created in the last nine years is keen to grab power,” he told supporters, hinting at the coalition headed by Ivanishvili.

Georgia′s President Mikheil Saakashvili enters the podium to address a showpiece rally of his party three days before elections in central Tbilisi, on September 28, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili enters the podium to address a showpiece rally of his party three days before elections in central Tbilisi, on September 28, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)

Clashes erupt as Madrid cops squelch austerity protest

Sporadic clashes have broken out in central Madrid, with twelve people reportedly injured after riot police moved in to clear the Plaza de Neptune, threatening to arrest those who would not leave.

The demo turned violent when police encircled about 300 protesters who refused to leave the square. The demonstrators chanted slogans, while some threw projectiles at police vehicles.

Twelve people have reportedly been injured as Madrid’s police split up the crowd, giving protesters the choice to either leave or face arrest. Two people have been arrested, El Pais reported.

A group of roughly 100 protesters tried to organize a sit-it, but left without incident, with police not trying to detain any of them.

The organizers of the protest have reportedly agreed to hold a meeting on Sunday to decide on the future actions of the movement.

Thousands of protesters face off police forces outside the Congress of Deputies on September 29, 2012 in Madrid, to denounce the conservative government′s deep budget cuts as the government submitted an austerity budget and said the public debt and deficit are set to rise far above earlier forecasts (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)
Thousands of protesters face off police forces outside the Congress of Deputies on September 29, 2012 in Madrid, to denounce the conservative government’s deep budget cuts as the government submitted an austerity budget and said the public debt and deficit are set to rise far above earlier forecasts (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)

In Spain, demonstrators spoke out against government spending cuts, tax hikes, and the nation’s alarmingly high unemployment rate.

The protest was centered near the Spanish Parliament building in the city’s downtown district.

Eager to make known their disapproval of the current administration, the crowd let off loud whistles near Parliament and yelled, “Fire them, fire them!”, referring to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government.

Authorities were bracing themselves for the march, after similar demonstrations last week led to violence and arrests.

On Friday, Rajoy’s government presented a 2013 draft budget that will cut overall spending by 40 billion euro, freezing public employees’ salaries, cutting unemployment benefits and reducing spending for Spain’s royal family.

The Rajoy administration says the country’s austerity program will continue into next year, along with the economic recession.

More than one in every two Spaniards under the age of 24 is currently jobless, while the national unemployment rate has reached nearly 25 per cent when considering all working age groups.

Spain’s recession worsened this year, after austerity measures designed to help the country’s crippled economy hampered consumer spending.

 

 A bare breast protester lies on the street next to a placard reading "Love unites us, we are all equal, we were born free and we will die free" during a demonstration organized by Spain′s "indignant" protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis, near the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)
A bare breast protester lies on the street next to a placard reading “Love unites us, we are all equal, we were born free and we will die free” during a demonstration organized by Spain’s “indignant” protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis, near the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)

The country’s GDP also fell 0.4 per cent from the previous quarter, according to the Madrid-based National Statistics Institute.

And the situation is unlikely to get better anytime soon – Spain’s economy is expected to shrink between two and three per cent over the next two years.

Many worry that the country will become the fourth Eurozone state to seek a full bailout – something Prime Minister Rajoy says will not happen.

However, many experts say it’s only a matter of time before the country requests one.

Madrid has already asked for help with its banks. Eurozone finance ministers have agreed to lend the country 100 billion euros to help its financial sector.

Police vans block a street leading to the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 during a demonstration at Neptuno′ square organized by Spain′s "indignant" protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)
Police vans block a street leading to the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 during a demonstration at Neptuno’ square organized by Spain’s “indignant” protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)
 A protester raises his fist during a demonstration organized by Spain′s "indignant" protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis, near the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)
A protester raises his fist during a demonstration organized by Spain’s “indignant” protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis, near the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

Tens of thousands rally on the streets of Lisbon

In Portugal, demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the country’s 78-billion euro bailout ahead of the announcement of the government’s 2013 draft budget, which will include new tax hikes and cuts to social programs.

The protest, which was organized by Portugal’s biggest union, came after the center-right government announced a hike in social security taxes – inciting widespread anger.

Demonstrators marched through Lisbon shouting, “Let the fight continue,” and carried banners reading “Go to hell Troika, we want our lives back.”

Portugal is currently facing its worst recession since the 1970s, with an unemployment rate of over 15 per cent.

People take part in a demonstration against the Portuguese government′s austerity policies at the Terreiro do Paco Square in Lisbon on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
People take part in a demonstration against the Portuguese government’s austerity policies at the Terreiro do Paco Square in Lisbon on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
(AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
(AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
People take part in a demonstration against the Portuguese government′s austerity policies at the Terreiro do Paco Square in Lisbon on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
People take part in a demonstration against the Portuguese government’s austerity policies at the Terreiro do Paco Square in Lisbon on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)

Iran threatens a pre-emptive strike on Israel – warns any conflict will be the start of World War III

Iran could launch a pre-emptive strike on Israel if it was sure the Jewish state was preparing to attack it, a senior commander of its elite Revolutionary Guards was quoted as saying on Sunday. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, made the comments to Iran’s state-run Arabic language Al-Alam television. “Iran will not start any war but it could launch a pre-emptive attack if it was sure that the enemies are putting the final touches to attack it,” Al-Alam said, paraphrasing the military commander. Hajizadeh said any attack on Iranian soil could trigger “World War Three.” We cannot imagine the Zionist regime starting a war without America’s support. Therefore, in case of a war, we will get into a war with both of them and we will certainly get into a conflict with American bases,” he said. “In that case, unpredictable and unmanageable things would happen and it could turn into a World War Three.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made increasing hints that Israel could strike Iran’s nuclear sites and has criticized U.S. President Barack Obama’s position that sanctions and diplomacy should be given more time to stop Iran getting the atomic bomb. Tehran denied it is seeking weapons capability and says its atomic work is peaceful, aimed at generating electricity. “The Zionist entity is militarily incapable of confronting Iran … the circumstances of the region do not enable it to wage war tomorrow or even in the near future,” Hajizadeh said. “Our response will exceed their expectations,” he said. “Their assessment of our missile capabilities is wrong. Our response will not only be missiles.” –Reuters

ALERT Armada of British naval power massing in the Gulf as Israel prepares an Iran strike

An armada of US and British naval power is massing in the Persian Gulf in the belief that Israel is considering a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s covert nuclear weapons programme.

Armada of British naval power massing in the Gulf as Israel prepares an Iran strike

Battleships, aircraft carriers, minesweepers and submarines from 25 nations are converging on the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in an unprecedented show of force as Israel and Iran move towards the brink of war.

Western leaders are convinced that Iran will retaliate to any attack by attempting to mine or blockade the shipping lane through which passes around 18 million barrels of oil every day, approximately 35 per cent of the world’s petroleum traded by sea.

A blockade would have a catastrophic effect on the fragile economies of Britain, Europe the United States and Japan, all of which rely heavily on oil and gas supplies from the Gulf.

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most congested international waterways. It is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point and is bordered by the Iranian coast to the north and the United Arab Emirates to the south.

In preparation for any pre-emptive or retaliatory action by Iran, warships from more than 25 countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will today begin an annual 12-day exercise.

The war games are the largest ever undertaken in the region.

They will practise tactics in how to breach an Iranian blockade of the strait and the force will also undertake counter-mining drills.

The multi-national naval force in the Gulf includes three US Nimitz class carrier groups, each of which has more aircraft than the entire complement of the Iranian air force.

The carriers are supported by at least 12 battleships, including ballistic missile cruisers, frigates, destroyers and assault ships carrying thousand of US Marines and special forces.

The British component consists of four British minesweepers and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay, a logistics vessel. HMS Diamond, a brand-new £1billion Type 45 destroyer, one of the most powerful ships in the British fleet, will also be operating in the region.

In addition, commanders will also simulate destroying Iranian combat jets, ships and coastal missile batteries.

In the event of war, the main threat to the multi-national force will come from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps navy, which is expected to adopt an “access-denial” strategy in the wake of an attack, by directly targeting US warships, attacking merchant shipping and mining vital maritime chokepoints in the Persian Gulf.

Defence sources say that although Iran’s capability may not be technologically sophisticated, it could deliver a series of lethal blows against British and US ships using mini-subs, fast attack boats, mines and shore-based anti-ship missile batteries.

Next month, Iran will stage massive military manoeuvres of its own, to show that it is prepared to defend its nuclear installations against the threat of aerial bombardment.

The exercise is being showcased as the biggest air defence war game in the Islamic Republic’s history, and will be its most visible response yet to the prospect of an Israeli military strike.

Using surface-to-air missiles, unmanned drones and state-of-the-art radar, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and air force will combine to test the defences of 3,600 sensitive locations throughout the country, including oil refineries and uranium enrichment facilities.

Brigadier General Farzad Esmaili, commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya air defence base, told a conference this month that the manoeuvres would “identify vulnerabilities, try out new tactics and practise old ones”.

At the same time as the Western manoeuvres in the Gulf, the British Response Task Forces Group — which includes the carrier HMS Illustrious, equipped with Apache attack helicopters, along with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle – will be conducting a naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean. The task force could easily be diverted to the Gulf region via the Suez Canal within a week of being ordered to do so.

The main naval exercise comes as President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, today to discuss the Iranian crisis.

Many within the Obama administration believe that Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities before the US presidential elections, an act which would signal the failure of one of Washington’s key foreign policy objectives.

Both Downing Street and Washington hope that the show of force will demonstrate to Iran that Nato and the West will not allow President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian leader, to develop a nuclear armoury or close Hormuz.

Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, reportedly met the Israeli prime minister and Ehud Barak, his defence secretary, two weeks ago in an attempt to avert military action against Iran.

But just last week Mr Netanyahu signalled that time for a negotiated settlement was running out when he said: “The world tells Israel ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’

“Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”

The crisis hinges on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, which Israel believes is designed to build an atomic weapon. Tehran has long argued that the programme is for civil use only and says it has no plans to an build a nuclear bomb, but that claim has been disputed by the West, with even the head of MI6 stating that the Islamic Republic is on course to develop atomic weapons by 2014.

The Strait of Hormuz has long been disputed territory, with the Iranians claiming control of the region and the entire Persian Gulf.

Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps recently boasted that “any plots of enemies” would be foiled and a heavy price exacted, adding: “We determine the rules of military conflict in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.”

But Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, warned that Iranian attempts to exercise control over the Strait of Hormuz could be met with force.

He said: “The Iranians need to understand that the United States and the international community are going to hold them directly responsible for any disruption of shipping in that region — by Iran or, for that matter, by its surrogates.”

Mr Panetta said that the United States was “fully prepared for all contingencies” and added: “We’ve invested in capabilities to ensure that the Iranian attempt to close down shipping in the Gulf is something that we are going to be able to defeat if they make that decision.”

That announcement was supported by Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, who added: “We are determined to work as part of the international community effort to ensure freedom of passage in the international waters of the Strait of Hormuz.”

One defence source told The Sunday Telegraph last night: “If it came to war, there would be carnage. The Iranian casualties would be huge but they would be able to inflict severe blows against the US and British.

“The Iranian Republican Guard are well versed in asymmetrical warfare and would use swarm attacks to sink or seriously damage ships. This is a conflict nobody wants, but the rhetoric from Israel is unrelenting.”

via telegraph.co.uk