Georgian leader Shevardnadze resigns

President leaves amid protest to avoid bloodshed

November 24, 2003|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOSCOW - Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze resigned yesterday, ending his rule of more than 11 years over a country that had grown to revile him and handing opposition leaders exactly what they wanted - a government takeover without bloodshed, inspired and driven by Georgians themselves.

The resignation was an ignominious end for the leader credited with helping end the Cold War. Holed up in his presidential residence on the outskirts of Tbilisi, Shevardnadze had been told yesterday that tens of thousands of protesters who had stormed Parliament on Saturday were preparing to march to his home.

His only recourse was to rely on the Georgian military to quell the protests, an option that would likely have plunged the former Soviet republic into civil war. Instead, to avoid bloodshed, the Georgian leader signed resignation papers.

"I see that this could not have ended bloodlessly, and I would have had to exercise my power," Shevardnadze said outside his home. "But I believe this must not be done. And therefore, I have signed an act on my resignation. I have quit."

Tens of thousands of Georgians, jammed in front of Parliament, roared with glee at the news.

Whether Shevardnadze had the support of his military was in doubt. Mikhail Saakashvili and other opposition leaders claimed that many Georgian soldiers had abandoned support for the president. When protesters stormed the Parliament building, scores of riot police simply let them enter.

Georgia's "velvet revolution," as Saakashvili called it, mirrored the nonviolent regime takeovers in Eastern Europe in 1989, when soldiers did nothing to stop throngs of demonstrators from toppling Communist governments.

"By his resignation, he avoided spilling blood in the country," Saakashvili said. "History will judge him kindly."

With news of Shevardnadze's resignation, local television showed images of Georgians dancing in the streets and on car roofs. Fireworks filled the sky.

"A new life without Shevardnadze is starting," said Isolda Liluashvili, 50, a teacher in Tbilisi. "We were so happy that no blood was shed. My son is a military doctor in the army, and he was awfully worried."

Nino Burdzhanadze, speaker of the Parliament who helped Saaskashvili lead protests against Shevardnadze, became Georgia's acting president. Under Georgia's constitution, she will remain the country's interim leader for 45 days, after which an election will be held.

There was little reaction from Washington. State Department spokesman Steven Pike said the department was "following the situation closely."

Though a small country of 4.4 million, Georgia has immense strategic importance to the United States. The route of a $3 billion pipeline under construction that would carry Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan snakes through Georgia. The United States is relying on that pipeline to reduce its dependence on Middle East oil.

Georgia is just as strategically vital to Moscow, which accused Shevardnadze last year of giving Chechen guerrillas refuge in the Pankisi Gorge, just south of the war-battered Russian republic of Chechnya. The Kremlin sent Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Tbilisi yesterday to help find a peaceful solution to the political crisis.

The trigger for the almost daily anti-Shevardnadze rallies that have filled Tbilisi streets with protesters was the Nov. 2 parliamentary election, widely condemned as rigged. However, Georgian discontent with Shevardnadze has been welling for years.

A thriving industrial and tourism hub during the Soviet era, Georgia became one of the poorest former Soviet republics during Shevardnadze's presidency. Retirees scrape by on pensions equivalent to $6 a month. According to World Bank data, more than half of the country lives in poverty. Average wages are about $20 a month; an estimated 20 percent of Georgians are unemployed.

Shevardnadze was also unable to stem corruption, which had become a way of life. Bribes are usually required to start a business, get a decent job or enroll in a good school. Transparency International, a watchdog group, lists Georgia as the world's sixth-most corrupt nation, behind Myanmar, Paraguay, Haiti, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Analysts say Shevardnadze allowed corruption to flourish among politicians and bureaucrats to maintain their allegiance. "He allowed different groups to use public office for their own enrichment," said Dhia Nodia, a Georgian political analyst. "That's how he bought their loyalty."

On Saturday, as Shevardnadze was preparing to speak before the new Parliament, demonstrators stormed into the chamber. Shevardnadze's bodyguards surrounded the president and whisked him away.

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