Georgia leader fires Cabinet under pressure

Shevardnadze vows to remain in office amid deepening political crisis

War On Terrorism

The World

November 02, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Continuing scandals and a new world alignment combined yesterday to send the entire Cabinet of Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze packing. Protesters called for his resignation, too, as the country headed toward a political fracture.

One member of Georgia's Parliament feared an impending coup.

Caught in the backwash of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Georgia has lived through weeks of tension and pressure, much of it brought to bear by a Russia that no longer feels the need to tread carefully in the Caucasus.

Shevardnadze's government has long pursued a pro-Western and specifically pro-American policy, but U.S. priorities in the region are changed now that Moscow has come on board the anti-terror campaign. Although Georgia represents the only friendly access route from the West to the oil-rich Caspian Sea, Washington is unlikely to seek out a confrontation with Moscow.

Since September, fighting has flared up again in the far northwestern republic of Abkhazia. Georgian and Russian leaders have blamed each other for the renewal of hostilities there after seven years of uneasy peace, but it is Georgia that has begun to show the strain.

Earlier this week, the Georgian security service raided the Rustavi 2 television station - the only independent broadcast outlet in the country and one that has angered the Shevardnadze administration by its recent coverage of the troubles in Abkhazia and by its long-running coverage of corruption within the government.

As thousands of protesters gathered in Tbilisi to defend Rustavi 2, Parliament managed Wednesday to force the resignation of Georgia's security minister, Vakhtang Kutateladze. But yesterday the legislature met in an extraordinary session to consider no-confidence votes on the interior minister and the prosecutor general.

Shevardnadze warned that he would relinquish the presidency if those votes were taken and then late in the day beat Parliament to the punch by telling his entire Cabinet to resign. The parliamentary speaker, Zurab Zhvania, also stepped down.

Shevardnadze said, however, that he would stay in office.

"I must oversee the process of structural changes in the leadership of the country," he said. "I do not intend to put on my hat and go home."

Shevardnadze said that freedom of speech was not under threat. The security service said the raid on the television station had been an attempt to uncover evidence of tax evasion - a crime that is universally practiced by companies doing business in Georgia.

None of those who turned out in front of Parliament yesterday were buying that explanation. Even after the resignation of the Cabinet was announced, protesters remained outside the building. Many were demanding that Shevardnadze be replaced by Michael Saakashvili, a former justice minister who had resigned earlier in protest over government corruption.

Saakashvili flew to Tbilisi from Moscow yesterday and declared at the protest rally that a "new national movement" was beginning. He called for immediate elections of a new Parliament.

Elena Tevdoradze, chairwoman of Parliament's Human Rights Committee, said she feared that forces within the military might try to launch a coup within the next few days. The protests, she said, are starting to unnerve the generals.

For now, though, Shevardnadze must try to work with the old Parliament to form a new government. It may not be an easy task - particularly if Russia steps up the pressure.

In the late 1980s, Shevardnadze served as Soviet foreign minister in Moscow under Mikhail S. Gorbachev and was in many ways the architect of the end of the Cold War. He resigned in late 1990, warning that "dark forces" were about to undo Gorbachev's reforms.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a civil war in his native Georgia, Shevardnadze returned to Tbilisi and accepted the role of president. A small troubled country on the southern slope of the Caucasus Mountains, the newly independent Georgia suddenly found itself with a world-famous statesman as its leader.

But Shevardnadze has overseen a descent into acute poverty, pervasive corruption - and widespread disenchantment.

Relations with Russia have never been good, but they've taken a considerable turn for the worse this fall. Moscow accuses Georgia of giving haven to Chechen rebels and has angrily alleged that in the past month a group of those rebels, with financial backing from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization, had left the Georgia-Chechnya border region and moved west toward Abkhazia, and perhaps toward Russia itself.

Georgia has countered with accusations that Russia is trying to stir up trouble as a way of extending its influence and is using the new worldwide fight against terror as a pretext.

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