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Georgia Leader Makes Overtures to Foes

Shevardnadze visits protesters in an effort to speak with them. He also meets with opposition leaders who claim electoral fraud.

November 10, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Rejecting calls for his resignation over allegations that his ruling party rigged results of last week's parliamentary elections, Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze on Sunday launched talks with his opponents to defuse a growing crisis in his former Soviet republic.

"I was elected by the Georgian people," Shevardnadze told reporters on the second day of demonstrations that drew thousands of protesters in Tbilisi, the nation's capital. "I do not intend to resign as president on the demand of individual politicians and several dozens of young people waving flags and shouting, 'Shevardnadze, get out!' "

Shevardnadze, who is 75 and a onetime Soviet foreign minister, made a surprise street appearance outside the parliament building Sunday and attempted to speak with protesters, Russian news agencies reported. Some jeered, whistled and called on him to resign, but others talked to him briefly. The president, who was accompanied by about a dozen bodyguards in leather jackets, expressed willingness to meet with opposition leaders.

Georgian television showed Mikheil Saakashvili, head of the National Movement, a leading opposition party, approaching Shevardnadze's car after the president had entered the bullet-proof vehicle and was about to leave.

Presidential bodyguards moved the opposition leader out of the way, and the car drove off.

Each side tried to draw political benefit from the encounter.

"There were various sentiments," Shevardnadze later told reporters, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass. "Some of them were sharp in their pronouncements, while it was possible to speak with others."

Saakashvili described Shevardnadze's appearance as "a trick on the part of the president to show off before the TV cameras," the Russian news agency Interfax reported. "But the people met the president very aggressively and said everything they think of him, demanding his resignation." The opposition leader said he had wanted to speak with Shevardnadze "but he fled out of fright."

Late Sunday evening, Shevardnadze met with three top opposition leaders, including Saakashvili, who stormed out of the meeting.

With more than 90% of the ballots counted, parties likely to support Shevardnadze in parliament had 41% support and opposition groups had 38%.

The opposition contends that the real level of support for parties allied with Shevardnadze is far less than the announced results.

Saakashvili said he left the Sunday evening meeting in protest against Shevardnadze's refusal to recognize "the victory of opposition parties in the parliamentary election," Itar-Tass reported.

Shevardnadze described the meeting as "rather interesting and somewhat tense." He said he had offered to set up a special commission to investigate possible electoral irregularities.

Zurab Zhvania, a leader of the Burjanadze Democrats, said he wanted to hold further talks with the president.

"Today Shevardnadze was not ready to answer a number of questions the opposition organizations were interested in," he said.

Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze, in comments reported earlier Sunday by Itar-Tass, declared that "the situation ... has really turned uncontrollable."

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