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Georgia: Political Standoff Turns Into A Dialogue Of The Deaf

Prague, 14 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Confronted with uncompromising demands from radical opposition leaders, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze today said he remains open to dialogue for the sake of his country.

In a televised address to the nation, Shevardnadze also urged Tbilisi residents to stay away from a protest rally called by his opponents for later today.

The Georgian capital has been the scene of daily protests since the disputed 2 November parliamentary elections. Hundreds of opposition activists have been picketing the parliament building on Tbilisi's main avenue for the past six days.

The latest returns released today by the Central Election Commission show the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia coalition won nearly 21 percent of the vote -- more than any single party but less than the total taken by its rivals.

Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, whose National Movement-Democratic Front party came in third with 17.5 percent of the ballot, claims pro-government candidates stole the election. Saakashvili demands that Shevardnadze "admit his defeat," or step down.

The opposition coalition led by parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and United Democrats party leader Zurab Zhvania also believes the election was falsified, but has so far limited its demands to a vote recount.

In an overnight message broadcast on the pro-opposition Rustavi-2 television channel, Saakashvili called upon his supporters to march through the Georgian capital later today to demand the resignation of Shevardnadze, whom he likened to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Romania's Soviet-era ruler Nicolae Ceaucescu.

"Do not believe those who say Shevardnadze will not leave power regardless of the number of people who take to the streets. In the past, Eastern European rulers who used to be much stronger than Shevardnadze had to abide by the people's will. Shevardnadze's regime is much more frightened and much weaker than that of those leaders," Saakashvili said.

Shevardnadze today dismissed Saakashvili's calls, saying he would not meet the fate of Milosevic or Ceaucescu. The Georgian president also reiterated his intention to resume talks with opposition leaders, whom he blamed for skipping a planned meeting on 12 November. "I, of course, want dialogue [with the opposition] to take place. I favor normal relations [with the opposition]. I am neither afraid nor ashamed to meet with any of them," he said. "I met them once. I wanted to meet them a second time, but [they] didn't show up. I waited 2 1/2 hours to no avail."

Saakashvili has clearly indicated he does not want to engage in any negotiation with the president.

Shevardnadze today cautioned Georgians against the risks of civil strife, expressing fear that round-the-clock protests might eventually pit one part of society against the other. Yesterday, pro-government protestors rallied in Marneuli -- a city with a large ethnic Azerbaijani community -- to express their support for Shevardnadze.

A number of opposition groups -- such as the left-wing Labor Party or the pro-business New Rightists party -- have dissociated themselves from Saakashvili and his allies and refuse to question the outcome of the polls. One New Rightists official, Vakhtang Khmaladze, yesterday described as "illegal" steps taken by radical opposition leaders to obtain Shevardnadze's resignation.

Another opposition group, Aslan Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union, has also lent its support to Shevardnadze. Revival placed second in the 2 November poll with more than 18 percent of the vote.

Abashidze, who is the leader of the southern autonomous republic of Adjaria, toured neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan earlier this week to discuss Georgia's political developments with leaders of these two countries. Today, he held talks in Moscow with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. The Russian Foreign Ministry gave no details about the meeting, but there is little doubt both men discussed the Georgian political standoff.