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Georgia: Opposition Steps Up Pressure On Shevardnadze As Vote Counting Continues

Georgia's main opposition leaders are stepping up pressure on President Eduard Shevardnadze, insisting that the country's main opposition group received the most votes in last week's parliamentary election. Hundreds of opposition activists staged a second night of demonstrations yesterday in Tbilisi, demanding that the authorities recognize what they say are the real election results. The protests, though limited, are at the center of growing discontent with Shevardnadze's 11-year rule.

Prague, 6 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Chanting "Shevardnadze out!" hundreds of Georgian opposition activists gathered yesterday in front of the Tbilisi City Hall to demand the resignation of the country's veteran leader.

It was the second street demonstration since Sunday's (2 November) parliamentary election, which Georgia's main opposition leaders claim was stolen by the authorities.

Partial returns released by the Central Election Commission today (12 p.m. local time) show that, with more than 70 percent of the ballots counted, President Eduard Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia coalition is leading the polls with 26.2 percent of the votes.

The National Movement-Democratic Front (EMDP) of Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili is in second place with 23.3 percent of the votes. It is followed by three other opposition groups: the left-wing Labor Party, the center-right coalition of parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, and the pro-business New Rightists Party.

Maverick Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union was just below the 7 percent barrier required to win parliamentary seats. Yet, the party is expected to overcome the threshold when all ballots are counted in the southern autonomous republic of Adjaria.

International observers and Georgian election-watch groups have said that the vote was marred by widespread administrative disorder and numerous irregularities, including discrepancies in voter lists and cases of ballot-box stuffing. But such critics have so far stopped short of alleging overall falsification.

Shevardnadze's administration denies the vote was fraudulent. Even among the opposition, there is no consensus over the regularity of the vote.

Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili and New Rightists leader Davit Gamkrelidze have made it clear they do not plan to question the outcome of the vote and have refused to join forces with Saakashvili and Burdjanadze in staging street protests.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Central Election Commission Chairwoman Nana Devdariani criticized the protests, suggesting detractors would be at liberty to file legal complaints when vote-counting operations are over. "What could we possibly do? I don't quite understand why they refuse to cope with these results," she said. "True, I myself twice lost an election and I did not really like it. But the vote tallies must go through additional procedures, including an appeals process."

Georgia's main opposition leaders, however, have clearly opted for more confrontational methods and bellicose rhetoric, threatening Shevardnadze with "revolution."

Addressing a crowd of supporters in the Tbilisi Concert Hall yesterday, Saakashvili said the Georgian president should admit his coalition's "electoral defeat," or step down. "My stance will remain unchanged. If the president does not recognize the victory of the [EMDP], we will demand his resignation," he said. "You have not supported us to allow these bandits and thieves steal the victory from the [EMDP] and the Georgian people."

A former justice minister and one-time Shevardnadze ally, Saakashvili has built up a reputation as an anticorruption crusader that appeals to many impoverished Georgians. Since he left Georgia's ruling party two years ago, the charismatic 35-year-old leader has been campaigning under the slogan "Georgia without Shevardnadze."

Saakashvili, who was not a candidate in the parliamentary election, has made little secret of his political ambitions. Many in Georgia see him as a serious presidential contender when Shevardnadze's mandate expires in two years' time. Saakashvili's ambitious character has drawn criticism from government officials and even other opposition leaders, who have accused him of resorting to populist methods to build up his support base.

Speaking on behalf of the pro-Shevardnadze coalition, National-Democratic Union leader Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia today dismissed any possible compromise with Saakashvili and his allies, whom she accused of blackmailing the state. "It is my responsibility to declare that anyone who makes concessions to blackmailers and unscrupulous individuals -- who for years have been threatening the state with destruction if their ambitions are not satisfied -- will not be able to prevent civil confrontation," she said.

Saakashvili yesterday issued Georgian authorities an ultimatum, threatening to call for a "gigantic" protest rally on Friday afternoon (7 November) unless they declare his party the winner of the 2 November polls.

Political developments in Georgia have raised concerns in the United States, which has strategic ties with Shevardnadze's team. Addressing reporters yesterday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Washington was pressing the Georgian government to accelerate the vote tally in order to defuse political tensions.

"Our ambassador to Georgia, Ambassador [Richard] Miles, met with President Shevardnadze today to review the latest developments in the Georgian elections. He made just the following points: that timely, transparent and accurate tabulation and reporting of the vote count is essential to restoring voter confidence; and that the Georgian Central Election Commission's delay in providing a full and accurate vote count raises serious concerns in this regard," Ereli said.

Ereli said the U.S. is also calling upon Georgian officials to throw out votes noted as "egregious cases of fraud" and hopes Shevardnadze will do his utmost to alleviate Washington's concerns.

Georgian election officials have suggested counting operations may be completed later today, but Saakashvili and his allies are now demanding that election results be cancelled in Adjaria -- the fiefdom of Aslan Abashidze, whom they suspect of being a covert ally of the government -- and in the Kvemo-Kartli region, an area that traditionally supports Shevardnadze.