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Georgians rally en mass for EU, urge government to quit

Waving Georgian and EU flags, demonstrators sang the national anthem as many held placards that read ‘We are Europe’.

Georgians staged a new mass rally on Sunday demanding that the government resign over its failure to formally secure candidacy for membership of the European Union.

The Black Sea nation has been in the grip of mass protests since EU leaders decided in late June to defer Tbilisi’s application for membership, pending sweeping political reforms.

On Sunday evening, more than 35,000 demonstrators gathered outside Georgian parliament, blocking traffic at the main thoroughfare of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene.

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“Our demonstration is focused on the historic goal of Georgia’s European integration,” one of the rally organisers, prominent writer and civil activist Lasha Bugadze told the crowd.

The ruling party has accused the opposition of “plans to overthrow the authorities by organising anti-government rallies”.

On Facebook, the rally’s organisers earlier called on Bidznia Ivanishvili, founder of the country’s ruling party, to “relinquish executive power and transfer it, in a constitutional manner, to a government of national accord”.

Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and Georgia’s richest man, is widely believed to call the shots in the country despite having no official political role.

He insists he has retired from politics.

Another demonstrator, 19-year-old student Marina Sanodze, said: “Our protests will not stop until we have a new government which will carry out the necessary reforms and will bring us closer to the EU membership.”

Georgia applied for EU membership together with Ukraine and Moldova, days after Russia on February 24 invaded Ukraine.

EU leaders nonetheless “recognised Georgia’s European perspective”, a move that President Salome Zurabishvili hailed as “historic”.

The deferral of Georgia’s candidacy became a foregone conclusion after the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — said on June 20 that Tbilisi must implement a number of reforms by the end of 2022 before it was put on a formal membership path.

“They (Georgians) have a clear path…. When these criteria are met, the candidate status will be granted automatically,” the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on June 23.

Plans to join NATO and the EU are enshrined in Georgia’s constitution and, according to opinion polls, are supported by at least 80 percent of the population.

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