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Saakashvili Targets Russia at First Post-War Military Parade

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili paying homage to his nation during a military parade in Tbilisi, as Georgia marks its Independence Day on May 26. David Mdzinarishvili

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili celebrated his country's independence day Wednesday with the first military parade since Russia routed Georgia in a brief 2008 war and a new round of verbal cannonade against Moscow.

Saakashvili, speaking outside the parliament in Tbilisi before the parade and surrounded by young boys dressed in military fatigues, indirectly accused Russia of a continued plot to subjugate his country.

“Our independence today is confronted by the empire. There are forces that … spare no efforts to defeat us in this great battle for freedom,” he said, according to the Civil.ge web site.

Georgia was privileged to have had "the pleasure to fight for independence.” ? 

Russia and Georgia went to war over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, and relations between both countries have been frozen ever since. ? 

Saakashvili also fired a barrage against criticism from the Georgian opposition against his government's stance on Moscow, calling them "followers of the empire."

"They say that submission is the only way for our survival … but we will never submit to the empire," he said.

In an interview with Georgian television late Tuesday, he referred to those advocating rapprochement as wanting "to kiss someone's boot night and day." He said a policy of appeasing Moscow does not work, explaining that Moldova had "given everything possible to Russia" without getting anything in return, Civil.ge reported.

In a less saber-rattling tone, he added that Georgia would continue its fight for independence by building a strong, economically advanced state.

After the speech, tanks rolled and more than 4,300 troops marched past the parliament building on Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue. Among the military hardware displayed were Turkish-built Ejder armored personnel carriers, purchased by Georgia last year, as well as U.S.-made Humvees and Russian-made BTR-80 armored vehicles.

Last year, the government canceled the parade in the face of widespread opposition protests in the capital and an attempted mutiny in a tank battalion outside Tbilisi.

After Wednesday's parade, Saakashvili unveiled a monument to Georgians who died fighting for their homeland's independence.

"There would be no Georgian capital and our flags would not be flying proudly if Vladimir Putin had implemented his plans in 2008," Saakashvili said.

The monument, described in news reports to be 30 to 40 meters high, bears the names of about 3,500 victims, including soldiers who died during the fighting in South Ossetia two years ago.

Its unveiling comes less than half a year after Saakashvili caused outrage in Moscow when he ordered the razing of a Soviet war monument near the Georgian city of Kutaisi.

Pointing to himself, an army-fatigue-clad Saakashvili went on to say that "if we want Georgia to exist, we all should be ready to put on this uniform and take arms."

Georgian officials maintain that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin planned to occupy Tbilisi and topple Saakashvili's government after routing the country's armed forces in South Ossetia.

Giorgi Kandelaki, deputy head of the parliament's international relations committee and a close ally of Saakashvili, told The Moscow Times that he considered the invasion as ongoing so long as Russian soldiers continued to occupy 20 percent of his country's territory.

After the war, Moscow recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent and stationed troops there.

Kandelaki said only U.S. support prevented the Russians from occupying Tbilisi.

"They wanted the whole cake. They were hoping the government would fall, but they did not advance after President [George W.] Bush made it clear that he would not accept that," Kandelaki said by telephone.

But Andrei Klimov, a deputy chairman of the State Duma's International Relations Committee and a member of the ruling United Russia party, said President Dmitry Medvedev had made a clear political decision at the time not to invade further into Georgia.

"We stood a few kilometers outside Tbilisi and had all the means to take the capital," he said.

"But Medvedev decided against capturing Mr. Saakashvili and taking him to court because this is for the Georgian people to decide."

Klimov said Saakashvili's warnings of a possible new invasion reflected paranoia.

"He is paranoid. Russia is not going to invade his country because it is not in our national interest to do so," he said.

He explained that the country needed no addition to its own territory. "We are already the largest country," he said.

He also said there was no chance for rapprochement as long as Saakashvili was in power. "We will never deal with him, and no Duma deputy has another opinion," he said.

Opinion polls say Saakashvili remains popular at home. A survey conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, a think tank, found that trust in him remained at 50 percent last year.

His current term ends in 2012, and the constitution bars him for running a third time. Analysts expect the winner of Tbilisi mayoral elections next weekend to be the strongest contender for his succession.

Incumbent Gigi Ugulava, a close ally of Saakashvili, has been expected to win the Sunday vote.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated Washington's support for Tbilisi, saying the United States was renewing its commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

"Georgians have achieved impressive political and economic development, and I am confident in Georgia’s bright future," she said in a congratulatory statement published online.

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