TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgian President Eduard
Shevardnadze resigned yesterday as the opposition threatened to
storm his residence. His fall sparked fireworks and dancing among
tens of thousands of protesters, and ended a political crisis
astonishing for its speed and lack of violence in a blood-washed
region.

Janna Hutz
Opposition supporters rally in front of the Georgian Parliament in Tbilisi yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

Shevardnadze’s resignation caps a political career during
which he won admiration in the West by helping guide the Cold War
to an end as Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. But
during 10 years as president of Georgia, he became despised for
rampant corruption.

Residents of Tbilisi poured into streets and partied late into
the night after the resignation was announced, honking car horns
and waving flags on the capital’s main Rustaveli Avenue.
Champagne corks flew, and revelers placed flowers into the machine
gun barrels of two armored personnel carriers blocking a
street.

Georgia lies at a crossroads important to both the United States
and Russia, on the planned path of an oil pipeline between the
landlocked Caspian Sea and the ports of the Black Sea. The Caucasus
nation has seen two bloody separatist movements under
Shevardnadze’s rule since 1992.

Throughout nearly three weeks of protests — since
parliament elections that the opposition said were rigged —
both sides, mindful of Georgia’s history of fatal political
conflicts, had pledged to avoid provocations. Shevardnadze said
maintaining peace was paramount in his decision to resign.

“I realized that what is happening may end with spilled
blood if I use my rights” to use force against the
protesters, he said on national television.

“The president has accomplished a courageous act,”
said opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, head of the National
Movement. “History will judge him kindly.”

But by then, it was unclear if police and soldiers would have
obeyed an order to use force. Some soldiers joined a crowd of
50,000 opposition protesters who massed in front of parliament
yesterday morning as Shevardnadze still clung to power.

The defense minister said the military wouldn’t intervene
on the president’s behalf after opposition supporters on
Saturday stormed parliament and declared an interim government,
forcing Shevardnadze to flee the building in a nationally televised
scene.

Abroad, Shevardnadze found few allies. He has long courted the
United States, but Washington condemned the Nov. 2 elections as
fraudulent. After the parliament takeover, the United States only
called on both sides to avoid violence. Russia sent its foreign
minister to mediate a way out.

Yesterday, Saakashvili visited Shevardnadze in his residence
outside Tbilisi and told him that if he did not resign, opposition
protesters would seize the building. Russian Foreign Minister Igor
Ivanov joined them at the meeting. Shevardnadze then signed his
resignation.

New parliament elections are planned within 45 days. Until then,
an interim government headed by opposition figure Nino Burdzhanadze
will run the ex-Soviet republic.

Despite the wide satisfaction over Shevardnadze’s ouster,
the opposition may have difficulty maintaining unity in a country
where political fault lines follow personality and loyalty rather
than ideological conviction. Saakashvili and Burdzhanadze worked
closely during the weeks of protests in what appeared to be a
marriage of convenience.

Further complicating Georgia’s politics is the Revival
party, which was often at odds with Shevardnadze but even more
vehemently opposed to Saakashvili, alleging that he is a
fascist.

But for the moment, Shevardnadze’s fall meant only one
thing to celebrating Georgians. “Freedom,” said Irma
Merabishvili, a 34-year-old teacher handing out flowers in the
street alongside her.

“There was no blood, no killing, everything was
peaceful,” said Nona Ushuilidze, a 60-year-old university
teacher watching the spectacle. “People love each other,
they’re meeting strangers and all wishing each other
luck.”

After the elation fades, the new government will face a stern
challenge in addressing Georgians’ anger over their misery.
Georgians widely detested Shevardnadze for allowing corruption to
infest the country while most of its people fell into poverty and
despair — scraping by on tiny pensions or makeshift work,
living with sporadic electricity and water.

That anger fed the uprising against Shevardnadze, but it was
initially triggered by the fraud-plagued parliamentary elections on
Nov. 2. Even as the voting was underway, complaints of widespread
ballot-box stuffing and other abuses emerged.

Opposition forces led by the fiery and erudite Saakashvili began
daily protests outside parliament that attracted thousands,
sometimes tens of thousands, demanding the elections be annulled or
that Shevardnadze resign.

Shevardnadze called repeatedly for “dialogue,” but
gave no sign he would make concessions.

Shevardnadze was firmly Western-leaning, repeatedly expressing
aspirations for the country to join NATO and other European
structures. But he appeared to resist Western exhortations to try
to resolve the political crisis. U.S. officials had repeatedly met
with Shevardnadze over the past weeks, to little apparent
effect.

This summer the White House sent James Baker, who had been
Shevardnadze’s counterpart as U.S. Secretary of State during
the Cold War, to Georgia to push for his commitment to hold free
and fair elections.

During the crisis, Shevardnadze consulted by telephone
repeatedly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he had
often quarreled. The decision to resign just hours after the
arrival of the Russian foreign minister could indicate the Kremlin
is trying to reassert influence in Georgia.

Shevardnadze’s former boss, Gorbachev, was quoted as
telling Russia’s Interfax new agency that Shevardnadze
“probably understood that the moment had come for him to make
this step so that Georgia would not break up.”

 

 

 

 

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