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Just the Right Mix for a Revolution

He stormed Georgia's parliament while she urged the crowds to stay organized and calm. Together they brought down Shevardnadze.

November 26, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

TBILISI, Georgia — At rallies protesting election fraud, he played the hothead while she exuded quieter strength. He demanded that the president resign to take responsibility for the cheating, while she said new clean balloting might be enough. They were an odd couple, a powerful good cop-bad cop team.

Finally he stormed the parliament building, carrying a single long-stemmed rose as a symbolic replacement for a gun and leading crowds that chased President Eduard A. Shevardnadze out of the building in mid-speech. She then urged protesters to stay organized and calm. The next day Shevardnadze resigned, and she took over as interim leader.

Together, Mikheil Saakashvili and Nino Burjanadze -- with the help of tens of thousands of street protesters -- this week brought down the president.

What their supporters see as Saakashvili's heroism played a large role in making Burjanadze this country's interim president. She seems likely to return the favor by backing him as Georgia's next leader in a Jan. 4 presidential election set by parliament on Tuesday.

Burjanadze, 39, studied law in Tbilisi and Moscow. She entered politics in the mid-1990s as a Shevardnadze protege but quit his party in 2001 in protest over its policies and disillusionment with his leadership. A few months later she won a race for speaker of parliament. A year ago, in comments reported by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, she said she had no plans to run for president in the next 10 years.

"I am not yet ready to assume such a great responsibility," she said. "There are enough worthy candidates for president in Georgia."

Saakashvili, 35, also a lawyer, is married to a Dutch woman. The Columbia University Law School graduate heads the Tbilisi City Council and the National Movement party. His image is of a strong and charismatic figure able to mobilize supporters, and he exudes burning ambition.

He was named justice minister by Shevardnadze in 2000 and tried to run a high-profile anti-corruption campaign, but he and the president clashed over those efforts and he left that post the next year.

At a news conference Tuesday, Saakashvili spoke in French and English nearly as easily as in Georgian. He ridiculed the perception of his critics that he is too wild to be entrusted with the presidency -- but did so with a passion that still makes some wonder.

"You cannot speak to a crowd of 75,000 people with the same voice that I'm speaking now to you at the press conference," he said quietly in English. "The people who say that if I'm talking to a 75,000 crowd I'm a populist, a demagogue, are simply stupid. Because look, I've never ever used either offensive or insulting or in any way menacing language toward anybody.

"Only those people who are doing that could be regarded as dangerous."

Saakashvili said that by rigging the results of the Nov. 2 parliamentary elections, Shevardnadze's team had "insulted," "humiliated" and "degraded" opposition voters. "You should react to that, and at that moment you could really be very tough and energetic," he said. "We stood up for our rights."

When asked about the sharp contrast between his and Burjanadze's public personas, Saakashvili said they complement each other well. "She's a very sympathetic nice woman who has her own style," he said.

Elene Tevdoradze, a member of parliament from Burjanadze's party, said the new interim president "has the ability to listen to every opinion before making a final decision."

"She is a very principled person," she said.

Tevdoradze told of the night in 2001 when Burjanadze was elected speaker, the post that put her in line to become interim president when Shevardnadze resigned.

"I was sitting next to Nino Burjanadze, and I saw how nervous she was," Tevdoradze recalled. "When I asked her if she was nervous about losing, she answered that she was nervous because she might win. This showed what big responsibility she was taking onto herself, and that she wasn't running just to get the position."

When Burjanadze chaired her first session of the National Security Council on Monday, it was a dramatic advance for women's rights in this tradition-minded society: A rather young bespectacled woman sitting at the end of a long table packed on both sides by older men.

But Burjanadze has built her career as herself rather than as part of a broader women's rights movement.

Before the 1999 parliamentary elections, an effort was made to require parties to run a certain number of female candidates, but Burjanadze opposed the proposal, said Mark Mullen, director in Georgia for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. "She said if women are to be respected as leaders they need to earn it individually on their own," he said. The proposal was not enacted.

Burjanadze's husband, Badri Bitsadze, worked in Shevardnadze's government as a deputy prosecutor until last week, when he resigned in protest. They have two children.

"She's a wonderful wife, a wonderful mother, she plays the piano very well and she makes very tasty tarts," Tevdoradze said.

But despite her respect for Burjanadze, Tevdoradze said she believed that Saakashvili would be the stronger presidential candidate -- and that he would win the nod from the main opposition forces.

Saakashvili "is not frightened of anything," she said. "Today we see that the people demand the type of leader that Saakashvili is. People saw that during these demonstrations he was willing to stand in front of guns."

A group of journalists discussing Saakashvili over lunch asked their waitress, in English, what she thought. She had trouble understanding the question, until it was reduced to: "Is Saakashvili too hot? Or is he a hero?" Then she understood.

"He's too hot," she answered without hesitation. "But he's a hero."

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