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Page last updated at 09:33 GMT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 10:33 UK

Georgia president unveils reforms

Mikhail Saakashvili addresses Georgia's parliament (20 July 2009)
Despite daily protests President Saakashvili insists he will not resign

The Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, has promised a series of democratic reforms, ahead of a visit to Georgia by US Vice-President Joe Biden.

Addressing parliament, Mr Saakashvili proposed early local elections, the direct election of mayors and a reduction in presidential powers.

Critics say the proposals fail to deal with major issues such the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

On Monday, Mr Biden arrived in Ukraine for talks with the country's leaders.

'Public relations move'

Mr Biden will then fly to Tbilisi for talks on Wednesday with Mr Saakashvili, who has faced mass protests calling for his resignation since April.

We should all understand that we should build our country not by shouting in the street, but by civilised means, through elections
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili

The opposition accuse the Georgian president of bungling last August's war with Russia over South Ossetia, and failing to strengthen the rule of law and to improve democratic freedoms.

Mr Saakashvili's speech on Monday, in which he presented a package of electoral changes, was designed to hit back at those who accuse him of monopolising power, says the BBC's Tom Esslemont in Tbilisi.

"We should end the rhetoric of civil war and public confrontation," Mr Saakashvili told parliament. "We should all understand that we should build our country not by shouting in the street, but by civilised means, through elections."

The president said there would be direct mayoral elections for the first time; changes to the central elections commission; a reduction in presidential powers; and the partial ceding of control of the state-run broadcaster to opposition members.

The proposals, though scant in detail, were warmly received by parliament, where Mr Saakashvili's party commands a huge majority, our correspondent says.

Protester taken away by police outside Georgian parliament (20 July 2009)
Critics said Mr Saakasvhili's proposals failed to deal with major questions

But non-parliamentary opposition members, the president's most outspoken critics in Georgia, said they failed to answer the wider questions, such as how and when he plans to regain control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both are now recognised and supported as independent states by Russia.

Eka Beselia, an opposition leader, dismissed the speech as "a public relations move" and said the proposals did not go far enough.

"Saakashvili is trying to create the illusion of pluralism, but nothing he says can be taken seriously," she told the Associated Press.

"The country is in deep crisis, we are demanding an early presidential election, but he is talking about municipal elections. This is not serious."

Support for Georgia's territorial integrity will be high on Mr Biden's agenda when he arrives in Tbilisi, our correspondent says.

Mr Saakashvili will now be hoping to win praise too for at least appearing to address Western concerns over democratisation, he adds.



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