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GEORGIA

Saakashvili Opens Parliament Early

Opposition lawmakers refused to take their seats in Georgia's parliament Saturday, claiming that last month's elections were rigged in favor of the ruling party.

United Opposition alliance chief Levan Gochechiladaze cut up the ID card granting him a seat in the legislature at a small rally in front of the legislature. But his hopes of mustering tens of thousands of supporters to block the parliament on its opening day were thwarted when President Mikheil Saakashvili brought the date forward at the last moment.

Authorities announced late Friday that the opening session would be held Saturday instead of Tuesday, leaving Saakashvili's opponents with little time to get organized.

The May 21 elections strengthened the pro-Western Saakashvili's grip on power, giving his ruling National Movement 119 of the 150 seats in the parliament.

The United Opposition alliance, which won 17 seats, rejected the results, claiming that the election was tarnished by widespread violations, pressure on government opponents and media bias. Most of the other opposition lawmakers stayed away from Saturday's session, but several said they would later take their parliament seats.

Opposition leaders have permission to hold demonstrations outside the parliament on Tbilisi's main avenue for an 11-day period beginning Sunday. Authorities could have intervened Saturday had the crowd become too large. A few busloads of riot police stood several hundred meters away, and the protesters dispersed at midday.

The scheduling change and the police presence show "that this is not a popularly elected parliament," United Opposition co-leader David Gamkrelidze said from the steps of the colonnaded legislature as the session went on inside.

"A group of bandits has seized power," said another opposition leader, Koba Davitashvili.

Addressing the parliament, Saakashvili and his allies said they wanted dialogue with the opposition.

"We are ready for talks, ready for compromises, ready to do everything we can to avoid a split in society," said David Bakradze, a former foreign minister and Saakashvili campaign manager who was elected parliament speaker.

Saakashvili was initially elected in a landslide after leading the Rose Revolution protests that ousted his predecessor in 2003. But accusations of authoritarianism and persistent hardship despite economic growth dented his popularity, and foes mounted massive protests last year calling for his resignation.

In November, police fired tear gas and water cannons in a violent crackdown on protesters that further angered the opposition. But Saakashvili maintained his hold on power by calling an early presidential election in January, which he won with a slim majority amid opposition claims of fraud.

The political wrangling has played out against a backdrop of increasing tension between Georgia and Russia over Saakashvili's drive for NATO membership and Moscow's growing support for the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Saakashvili said overcoming poverty and bringing the breakaway regions into the fold were Georgia's top priorities.

"What we value most of all is the unity of Georgia, and everyone must gather together to resolve this issue," he told the parliament.

(The Moscow Times 9.vi.08)