Opposition takes over Georgia's parliament amid street protests

Sunday, November 23, 2003

The opposition seized Georgia's parliament Saturday, chasing out President Eduard Shevardnadze and declaring an interim government as tens of thousands of supporters thronged the streets of the capital. Shevardnadze, backed by his head of police, declared a state of emergency.

Shevardnadze has long claimed that he is key to maintaining stability in the Caucasus region, located on strategically vital oil routes.

Opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze, the speaker of the outgoing parliament, proclaimed herself acting president until early elections that the opposition called to take place in 45 days. She warned Shevardnadze's government to avoid bloodshed.

The parliament takeover was an exuberant moment for protesters who for days have been demanding the president's removal over elections that the opposition says were rigged. The United States and other foreign observers also considered the elections fraudulent.

Just as Shevardnadze began speaking in parliament, protest leader Mikhail Saakashvili and hundreds of supporters swarmed through the chamber doors, pushing and shoving lawmakers.

Pro-government lawmakers were thrown out of parliament -- and Shevardnadze was hustled out of the chamber by bodyguards. "I will not resign," he vowed outside the building as he boarded a vehicle and was driven off, escorted by troops in riot gear.

He later went on national television and declared a 30-day state of emergency. "Order will be restored and the criminals will be punished," he vowed.

"I can step down only within the framework of the constitution," Shevardnadze said. "It will depend on the parliament and the population, but everything has to happen within the constitutional framework."

This poverty-stricken ex-Soviet republic slid into its biggest political crisis in years after the Nov. 2 parliamentary elections, which the United States criticized for "massive fraud" after it showed a victor for pro-Shevardnadze parties.

Georgia, a country of nearly 5 million people strategically located on the Black Sea neighboring Russia and Turkey, lies on the path of an important pipeline to ship oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey beginning in 2005. U.S. troops are in Georgia training its troop against Islamic extremists who have used Georgia as a jumping-off point for attacks in neighboring Chechnya.

The roots of the turmoil lie in the deep economic misery of most of the population and the rampant corruption that has characterized Shevardnadze's 10-year reign. Respected outside of Georgia for his role in helping to end the Cold War as foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev, the 75-year-old Shevardnadze is considered a disappointing relic at home.

The United States, which Shevardnadze has tried to court for closer ties, took a neutral stance, urging all sides to "refrain from the use of force or violence."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington calls for a "dialogue with a view to restoring calm and reaching a compromise solution acceptable to all."

Russia, which remains a key power in the region, dispatched Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Tbilisi, the Kremlin said.

Shevardnadze's office called the opposition's actions an "armed state coup."

"I can step down only within the framework of the constitution," Shevardnadze said. "It will depend on the parliament and the population, but everything has to happen within the constitutional framework."

In his television appearance, he sat on a bench outdoors at a government residence on the outskirts of Tbilisi, with the interior minister -- in charge of police and internal security -- and officers around him. The state of emergency he signed gave the interior and defense ministries the task of restoring order.

Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili said that he would obey all the president's orders.

Saturday had been seen as a decisive day, because Shevardnadze had said that he would open the parliament no matter what and the opposition vowed to prevent that.

All morning, with the president due to open parliament, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Tbilisi, waving flags and chanting "Leave" and "Enough." Protesters kicked effigies of the president.

After protesters took over the parliament chamber, Saakashvili exulted, "The 'Velvet Revolution' has taken place in Georgia" -- a reference to the practically bloodless 1989 uprising that ousted the Communists from Czechoslovakia.

Shevardnadze has long claimed that he is key to maintaining stability in the turbulent nation, which has been riven by a civil war and the secession of two provinces since the 1991 Soviet collapse. He has carefully cultivated Western support and interest in his nation, which lies in the energy-rich Caspian region.

With protests building over the past two weeks, Shevardnadze's grip on the government seemed to be loosening. Even his top security aide acknowledged the election had been fraudulent.

Some armored personnel carriers were shown on Georgian television taking up positions in front of Shevardnadze's residence, but authorities emphasized that they were not going to be used against the demonstrators.

"I am appealing to all police officers not to let Shevardnadze spill blood," Saakashvili said in televised comments. "There are your brothers and sisters here."

Before the parliament session, Shevardnadze appeared to soften his position Saturday. He acknowledged that there had been some breaches in the election, which the pro-Shevardnadze party won according to official results.

"About 8 percent to 10 percent of the ballots were invalid," he said, but added that this should be dealt with in the courts.

According to final results, the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia bloc came in first with 21 percent of the vote, while the Revival party, which sided with Shevardnadze in the present crisis, finished second with nearly 19 percent.

Saakashvili's National Movement came in a very close third with 18 percent of the vote, while the Democrats who allied with Saakashvili got 8.8 percent.

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