Georgia demolishes Soviet era WWII memorial amid Russian criticism

Diggers tore into a Soviet World War Two memorial in Georgia to make way for a new parliament in the former Soviet republic.

Georgia demolishes Soviet era WWII memorial amid Russian criticism

Diggers tore into a Soviet World War Two memorial in Georgia on Thursday to make way for a new parliament in the former Soviet republic, angering Russia and opponents of pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili wants parliament sessions to be relocated to Georgia's second city of Kutaisi under an initiative to revitalise the former industrial hub.

But the demolition of a 46-metre-high concrete and bronze war memorial at the proposed construction site has been criticised by Georgia's opposition and Russia, which fought a brief war with U.S. ally Georgia last year.

The Russian Defence Ministry issued a statement saying it was "concerned", and Duma deputy and former prime minister Sergei Stepashin said it was "sacrilege".

Critics said the move reflected an indifference to public opinion by authorities under Saakashvili, whose rejection of Georgia's Soviet past has been his signature policy since taking power on the back of the 2003 "Rose Revolution".

Some 300,000 Georgians died fighting for the Soviet army during World War Two.

"The decision to dismantle this memorial without asking the people and without asking the author of this memorial is a very good example of how our leadership ignores public opinion," said Georgy Akhvlediani of the opposition Christian Democrats.

Naked horseman

One part of the monument, a statue of a naked Georgian horseman in front of the main concrete structure, has already been removed. Authorities said it would be relocated within Kutaisi, 236 km (147 miles) west of the capital Tbilisi.

Municipal construction official Jemal Tsuladze told Reuters the bronze sections of the monument, built in 1982, would be kept in storage, but the main structure was too big to move.

"It was a government decision and we are just implementing it," he said.

Kutaisi city officials could not confirm Russian media reports that the main structure -- designed by Georgian sculptor Merab Berdzenishvili -- would be blown up on Dec. 21, the birthday of Saakashvili which he shares with Josef Stalin.

A spokeswoman for Saakashvili declined to comment when contacted by Reuters. Russian officials said it was a crime. "The ... criminal nature of such evil acts must be raised at all international events," Alexei Ostrovsky, a committee chairman in the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, told RIA Novosti.

Relations between Russia and Georgia show no sign of improving since they fought a five-day war in August last year, when Russia crushed an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia.

The monument dispute has echoes of Estonia in 2007, when Russia reacted furiously to the removal of a statue of a Soviet Red Army soldier in the capital Tallinn.

Reuters
Last Mod: 18 Aralık 2009, 00:18
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