Tens of thousands of Georgians have rallied in the capital as the ex-Soviet state's richest man launched his bid to oust President Mikheil Saakashvili's governing party at elections later this year.
Supporters of billionaire tycoon-cum-opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream opposition alliance packed into Tbilisi's Freedom Square on Sunday for the lavishly-staged rally intended as a show of strength ahead of October's polls.
It was the biggest rally since 2009 by an opposition revitalised by the super-rich businessman's intervention, although opinion polls suggest his alliance trails behind the governing party.
Georgia's most famous footballer Kakha Kaladze, who recently retired from playing in Italy's Serie A, told the crowd that Saakashvili must quit.
"Misha [Saakashvili], your time is up. Go!" Kaladze said.
Before the rally, columns of Ivanishvili supporters marched through the city.
"We need real democracy, real freedom, not Saakashvili's fairy tales," said one participant, unemployed Juliet Tsulaia.
Ivanishvili, worth $6.4bn according to Forbes magazine, was stripped of his Georgian passport for violating citizenship laws after announcing his challenge to Saakashvili last year.
However parliament this month voted to change the constitution to allow EU citizens like Ivanishvili, who holds a French passport, to contest parliamentary polls.
Saakashvili's allies have accused the businessman, who made his fortune in Russia, of being a stooge for Georgia's enemies in Moscow, which fought a brief war with Tbilisi in 2008.
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|William A. Cook|