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Georgia: New Controversy Over Vote Counting Heightens Tensions

Confusion prevailed in Georgia today after new election results gave a regional party a spectacular boost in last week's legislative polls. Georgia's main opposition parties have denounced the latest development as part of an alleged plot masterminded by President Eduard Shevardnadze to steal the election.

Prague, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Election results released yesterday by Georgia's autonomous republic of Ajara have propelled the party of regional leader Aslan Abashidze up into first place in 2 November legislative polls.

Election officials say Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union garnered 95 percent of the votes in Ajara, with two minor opposition groups sharing the remainder.

Partial returns released by Georgia's Central Election Commission at 1200 GMT today showed that, with nearly all ballots counted, Revival was leading the national polls with 21 percent of the vote. Up until today Revival was dragging behind all the main contenders, and just below the 7 percent vote barrier required to enter the legislature.

The Georgian parliament is made up of 150 lawmakers elected on party lists under a proportional system and 85 deputies elected from single-mandate constituencies under a majoritarian system.

Revival's sudden rise has nudged President Eduard Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia coalition into second place.

It is followed by the National Movement-Democratic Front (EMDP) of Tbilisi City Council chairman Mikhail Saakashvili and two other opposition groups: the left-wing Labor Party and the coalition led by parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze. Only those five parties look set to enter parliament.

Official returns show EMDP and the Burjanadze-Democrats coalition garnered 18.6 percent and 7.6 percent of the vote, respectively. But the leaderships of both parties claim the election was fraudulent and argue EMDP actually received more votes than any other contender.

Burjanadze today said her party would not recognize the validity of the election, whatever the final outcome.

"We, [leaders of the] Burjanadze-Democrats bloc, declare unanimously that we do not recognize the results of the 2 November parliamentary elections. We do not recognize the election in general. We believe this election is invalid and we declare that we will not enter a parliament that is being appointed by the president and government of Georgia. We will continue to fight so that the Georgian people, the Georgian nation have the right to a better future," Burjanadze said.

Addressing journalists late yesterday in Tbilisi, Saakashvili accused Abashidze and Shevardnadze of plotting to steal the election.

"During the 2 November legislative polls Georgia's society showed an unusual boldness and inflicted on the government a catastrophic defeat. Not only President Shevardnadze and his government refuse to admit their defeat, but, as a result of a bargain between them and Ajara's feudal and criminal regime, official results now show Abashidze's Revival and Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia came first and second, respectively. What we are facing is a coup attempt by Shevardnadze, an attempt at stealing the people's will and capturing power," Saakashvili said.

Ajara's lawmakers yesterday reportedly adopted a resolution boosting Abashidze's powers in the police and defense sectors -- a decision that runs contrary to the Georgian Constitution.

Although formally in the opposition, Abashidze has often cooperated with the Georgian president in the past, especially at times of crisis.

Critics speculate that despite their conflicting personal relationship, both men long ago struck a deal, under which Shevardnadze would not try to reassert his control over unruly Ajara in return for Revival's support in the national parliament.

Elections in the southern Black Sea autonomous republic have always come under suspicion, with Abashidze regularly garnering over 90 percent of votes.

Even before results filed by Ajara reached the Georgian capital, Saakashvili and his allies had demanded that the 2 November vote be declared invalid in the province and in Kvemo-Kartli, a region with a large ethnic Azerbaijani minority that traditionally supports Shevardnadze.

The radical opposition claims most irregularities and alleged ballot stuffing took place in those two areas.

Georgian leaders, who deny allegations of massive fraud, today said 75 violations of the election code had been documented and pledged to investigate them. Georgian and foreign election observers have criticized the vote for its poor organization and numerous irregularities, but have not endorsed the charges of overall falsification leveled by the opposition.

But Saakashvili and his allies, who have already organized two peaceful street protests in Tbilisi to demand a vote recount, refuse to back down.

In an address broadcast live late yesterday on Ajara TV, Abashidze urged the Georgian president not to yield to his rivals, whom he accused of hatching unconstitutional plans.

"Do not give those who want to forcibly come to power and have absolutely no grounds for that any opportunity," Abashidze said. "If we fail to show common sense, firmness, and wisdom, much more difficult days will await Georgia today and tomorrow. And we will all bear responsibility for this," Abashidze said.

Abashidze's supporters yesterday threatened to take to the streets of the Georgian capital to oppose what Tsotne Bakuria, the head of Revival's Tbilisi branch, described as Saakashvili's "fascist ideology." Revival activists today held a meeting in Tbilisi's City Hall and were planning to march later through the streets of the capital.

The EMDP leader in turn yesterday called upon his supporters to stage a new protest rally on 8 November in the Georgian capital in lieu of a demonstration initially scheduled for today.

"Today as never before we need unity as has happened before in Georgia's history. We need to peacefully voice our protest. Tomorrow peaceful actions will start in Zugdidi, Gori, Zestafoni, Telavi and other Georgian cities to protest steps taken by Shevardnadze and demand a change of government and president in case the current regime continues to usurp power," Saakashvili said.

The Tbilisi-based Civil Georgia information website today reported EMDP had started distributing leaflets calling upon Georgians to "oust Shevardnadze's regime."

The pro-opposition Rustavi 2 television channel reports Tbilisi University students have pledged to join tomorrow's protests.

Also today, the opposition Labor Party -- which came fourth in the 2 November polls -- accused Saakashvili and his allies of driving Georgia toward civil confrontation in a bid to steal the election. Labor spokesman Gela Danelia said, "These opposition groups have reached an important achievement [in the election]. Those same opposition groups are now calling on people to take to the streets. We believe these calls to [create] massive disturbances are an attempt at falsifying the results [of the vote]."

In the first violent incident reported since the election, a group of Saakashvili's supporters late yesterday attempted to storm the election commission premises in the central city of Gori. One man was hurt in the brawl and taken to hospital.