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Georgian Parliament Seized by Opposition

Shevardnadze promises to restore order swiftly. His rivals tout success of their 'velvet revolution.'

November 23, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze declared a state of emergency in the former Soviet republic Saturday after opposition leaders backed by thousands of protesters demanding his resignation seized the parliament building, forcing him to flee in the middle of his speech.

With Shevardnadze hunkering down in his residence on the outskirts of the capital, Tbilisi, and promising to restore order swiftly, opposition leaders retained control of the building and said they would move quickly to form a new government.

The protesters, who interrupted the opening session of a new parliament, accused Shevardnadze of falsifying the results of parliamentary elections early this month.

There were no reports of weapons being used by either side Saturday, but it appeared that Shevardnadze was preparing to crush what his presidential press service described as a coup d'etat. Hundreds of police were reportedly awaiting orders at the Interior Ministry, and Georgia's Rustavi 2 television reported that tanks were being readied at an army base.

But the pro-Western reformers appeared to believe they had victory in their grasp, in a country where the United States has major economic and strategic interests and where Washington has tried hard to promote democracy and stability.

"The 'velvet revolution' in Georgia has become a fact," opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili declared after the parliament building was seized, alluding to Czechoslovakia's peaceful overthrow of its government in 1989.

Nino Burjanadze, another key opposition leader who was speaker of the outgoing parliament, said she was assuming the powers of acting president under the constitution, which places the head of parliament first in line of succession.

Burjanadze thanked "every person who raised their voice against an attempt to establish dictatorship in Georgia" and thanked the police and soldiers "who did not raise their hands against the peaceful population of their own country."

She called on the police and army to back her and "protect peace and stability."

Opposition leaders said they would call a session today of the parliament that served before the latest elections. "A candidate for the position of interior minister is being looked for now," Saakashvili told reporters, Russian news agency Interfax reported. "Not a single security unit must obey Eduard Shevardnadze."

But Shevardnadze, 75, made it clear he intended to take back full control. "If I prove weak now, the people won't forgive me," he told reporters after retreating to his residence, several miles from the official presidential residence in the city center.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called for "dialogue with a view to restoring calm and reaching a compromise solution acceptable to all." Russian President Vladimir V. Putin instructed Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov to fly to Tbilisi immediately, where he was expected to meet with both sides in pursuit of a peaceful solution.

Military leaders invited Shevardnadze to take power after a brief civil war in the 1991-92 winter, in a move his opponents viewed as a coup. He was elected as the nation's leader later in 1992. Since then, the United States has poured more than $1 billion into this country of about 5 million, giving it one of the highest per capita rates of U.S. aid in the world.

Washington is spending $64 million to train 2,000 Georgian soldiers for a rapid reaction force meant to block terrorists from establishing bases in the country's rugged border areas, in particular the part bordering the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya. The troops also could help protect a $3-billion U.S.-backed oil pipeline being built from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, which is expected to greatly increase the flow of Caspian Sea oil to world markets.

Shevardnadze won respect in the West for his role as Soviet foreign minister in helping end the Cold War, and he has pursued a generally pro-Western policy for Georgia. The new pipeline helps tie Western oil companies and their governments to long-term commitments in the region and, together with the contingent of better-trained troops, is seen as helping to guarantee Georgia's independence against any reassertion of Moscow's influence.

In the Nov. 2 elections, the pro-Shevardnadze bloc took enough seats to control parliament. But many contend that the vote count was fraudulent.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington on Thursday that there had been "massive vote fraud" in some regions and that the official results announced that day "do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people." Those comments were taken as encouragement by opposition leaders, who insisted that an honest count would have given them control of parliament.

Shevardnadze was in the midst of a speech when the protesters broke in. In scenes broadcast on Georgian and Russian television, his bodyguards hustled him out of the building.

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