Georgia's leader has celebrated the nation's independence day by moving parliament from the capital to a rundown provincial city and defying enemy Russia with a military parade.
"This new building of our parliament is a symbol of the new Georgia," said President Mikheil Saakashvili on Saturday at the official opening of the ultra-modern new legislature in the ex-Soviet state's second city Kutaisi.
Thousands of troops marched past parliament in a display featuring tanks, fighter jets and, for the first time, Georgian-made military hardware including unmanned spy drones, rocket launchers and combat vehicles.
Pro-West Georgia suffered a crushing defeat in a war with giant neighbour Russia in 2008, and Saakashvili warned in his speech that Moscow still wanted to "accomplish its cherished dream: to topple Georgia's government".
"I am confident that the Georgian people will stand guard to save Georgia's independence," he said. "We have fought so that Georgia would not have a single elite and that the country would not be managed from a single street."
The first parliament sitting in Kutaisi was only symbolic because construction work is unfinished and the legislative body will continue to meet in the capital Tbilisi until after elections this autumn.
"The building of the new Georgia is far from completion," acknowledged Saakashvili, the initiator of the ambitious $83m construction that looks like a giant glass bubble rising from the ground in the central industrial city of 186,000 people.
"Georgia, of course, is an unfinished building in terms of democracy," he added. But critics have said the parliamentary move could be aimed at marginalizing the legislature.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement to mark the independence anniversary that Washington - Georgia's main backer - would continue to support its small Caucasus ally.
|Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili addresses parliament session in specially constructed new building [Reuters]
"The United States is committed to helping Georgia deepen Euro-Atlantic ties and strengthen the institutions of your democracy, and we remain steadfast in support of Georgia's territorial integrity," Clinton said.
Russia has recognised two parts of Georgian territory as independent and permanently stationed troops there.
Critics have described the parliament move as a waste of money in the impoverished country.
"Saakashvili changes all rules and laws according to his personal wishes," Maya Panjikidze, spokeswoman for billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream opposition coalition, told the AFP news agency.
But Saakashvili's supporters say that moving the parliament will help to devolve politics and regenerate Kutaisi, which fell into decay after the Soviet collapse.
"Our city was a forgotten place, now it regains new life. We simply could not be happier," housewife Nanuka Maisuradze told AFP at Saturday's parade.
"Kutaisi is becoming Georgia's second capital," said teacher Sergi Gabunia.
The move attracted controversy from the outset when a woman and her young daughter were killed by flying pieces of concrete in 2009 as demolition workers blew up a monument to Soviet soldiers who died in World War II to make way for the new parliament.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has overseen the building of a replacement version of the monument in Moscow, calling the original's destruction a "disgraceful act of state vandalism".
Georgia's annual Independence Day marks liberation from the Russian empire in 1918. The Communist Red Army retook control in 1921, and independence from Moscow's rule was only regained in 1991.
Independence Day celebrations in 2011 were marred when riot police used force to break up an opposition rally aimed at preventing the military parade and two people were killed by cars speeding away from the scene.