Georgia opposition takes over Parliament

president flees

Shevardnadze, accused of falsifying election, declares emergency

November 23, 2003|By David Holley | David Holley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW - Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze declared a state of emergency in the former Soviet republic yesterday after opposition leaders backed by thousands of protesters seized the Parliament building, forcing the president to flee in mid-speech.

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

No weapons were reported used by either side yesterday, but it appeared that Shevardnadze was preparing to crush what his news service described as a "coup d'etat."

Hundreds of police officers were reported awaiting orders at the Interior Ministry, and Georgia's Rustavi 2 television reported that tanks were being readied at an army base.

But opposition leaders, who accuse Shevardnadze of falsifying the results of a parliamentary election this month, appeared to think that 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 seizing the Parliament building.

Nino Burjanadze, another key opposition leader who is speaker of the departing 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 officers and soldiers "who did not raise their hands against the peaceful population of their own country."

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

The opposition leaders said they would call a session of the old parliament today.

"A candidate for the position of interior minister is being looked for now," Saakashvili said, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. "Not a single security unit must obey Eduard Shevardnadze."

But Shevardnadze, 75, made it clear that 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 home 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 Ivanov to fly to Tbilisi immediately, where he was expected to meet with both sides to seek a peaceful solution.

Military leaders invited Shevardnadze to take power after a brief civil war in the 1991-1992 winter, in a move that his opponents viewed more as a coup. He won election as the nation's leader later in 1992, and 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 to block terrorists from establishing bases in the country's rugged border areas, in particular the part bordering war-torn 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.

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.

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.

In the Nov. 2 elections, the pro-Shevardnadze bloc took enough seats to control Parliament. But many contend that the vote count was not truthful.

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 insist that an honest count would have given them control of the Parliament.

Shevardnadze was in the midst of a speech to the opening session of the new Parliament when the protesters broke in. In scenes broadcast on Georgian and Russian television, his bodyguards swiftly hustled him out of the building as shoving matches broke out between opposition supporters and pro-government deputies.

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