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Georgia: Shevardnadze Regains Confidence As Supporters Come Out In Force

Thousands of pro-government supporters demonstrated today in the streets of Tbilisi in a rally intended as a counterweight to calls for Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to resign. In more good news for the Georgian leader, a nationwide call by his opponents for civil disobedience seems to be having little effect.

Prague, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's embattled President Eduard Shevardnadze appears to have regained his footing as calls by radical opposition leaders for civil disobedience are largely going unheeded.

Addressing journalists yesterday, Shevardnadze said he remains open to dialogue in a bid to defuse the political standoff triggered by disputed parliamentary elections on 2 November. "We must maintain dialogue with all opposition forces, including those who we are talking to and have good relations with, and those who are on the streets," he said. "Otherwise, it will be hard to ease the tension."

At the same time, however, the veteran leader suggested he is running out of patience and that tensions urgently need to abate to avoid violent unrest. In an interview with Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency, he called on his opponents to agree to a compromise as soon as possible. "Dialogue is needed today. In 10 days, it will no longer make any sense," Shevardnadze said.

Radical opposition activists have been staging daily protests in Tbilisi and other Georgian cities for the past two weeks, claiming the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia coalition stole the election.

Partial results released by the Central Election Commission show For a New Georgia garnered nearly 21 percent of the vote -- more than any single party but less than the total taken by its rivals.

The Democratic Revival Union of Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze took second with nearly 19 percent, ahead of the National Movement-Democratic Front (EMDP) of Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili and the coalition led by outgoing parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze.

Saakashvili and his allies accuse Abashidze -- who garnered 95 percent of the vote in his unruly fiefdom of Adjaria -- of plotting with Shevardnadze against the "people's will."

Although technically in the opposition, Revival has often collaborated with the government in the past. Abashidze last week lent full support to Shevardnadze, urging him not to yield to pressure from the radical opposition.

Saakashvili is a former justice minister who has repeatedly blamed Shevardnadze for allowing rampant corruption in state institutions. Yesterday, he vowed to lead a nationwide protest march -- tentatively set for tomorrow -- to force the Georgian leader out of office. "I will go even to the remotest villages to gather people and take the head of the march," he said. "From the Samegrelo [Mingrelia], Guri, Imereti, Kartli, and Kakheti regions, from all corners of Georgia without exception, the people will follow me. Since the will of 50,000 to 60,000 Tbilisi residents has been unable to convince the president, we will lead these people to the State Chancellery [Shevardnadze's office in Tbilisi]."

Saakashvili was referring to the large peaceful rally that took place on 14 November in Tbilisi. Although it was, by far, the largest protest the opposition has managed to muster since the election, Georgian and foreign media say some 10,000 protesters -- not 60,000, as Saakashvili suggested yesterday -- gathered in front of the parliament building to call for Shevardnadze to resign.

Also last week, radical opposition leaders announced plans to launch a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience, calling on Georgians to stop paying taxes and bills and urging public-sector workers to go on strike.

The movement went largely unheeded in most parts of the country, however. Reports yesterday said teachers and medical workers had gone on strike in some regions, but public transportation and state institutions were working almost as usual in the capital.

Undeterred, Saakashvili told supporters yesterday that he is not giving up hope of bringing the government to its knees. "Our only task -- and I think we have enough capabilities to achieve that goal -- is to pursue a civil disobedience campaign throughout Georgia," he said.

Saakashvili met with Shevardnadze on 9 November to try to defuse the political standoff, but the talks collapsed after a few minutes. The EMDP leader has effectively rejected further dialogue by saying he will not enter into further negotiations with the Georgian leadership until Shevardnadze resigns.

Shevardnadze yesterday reiterated that he has no intention of stepping down before his mandate expires in 2005. In his weekly radio address to the nation, the 75-year-old leader urged Georgians not to heed calls for his resignation. "My dear fellow countrymen, don't you see that you have been turned into a blind weapon in the hands of those who are struggling for power? Let me once again reiterate that I respect those who are expressing their will through peaceful demonstrations and rallies," he said. "I also respect the viewpoint of those thousands of people who supported other parties, including opposition groups."

Shevardnadze yesterday promised to investigate the allegations of massive election fraud that triggered the protests. But at the same time, he offered little hope to his opponents, saying a new parliament will convene as soon as final election results are published -- tentatively later this week.

Meanwhile, Abashidze's supporters staged a large pro-government rally today in Tbilisi. Media reports say at least 8,000 Revival activists -- most of them from Adjaria -- gathered in Tbilisi's sports hall to express support for the Georgian leader. They then moved toward the parliament building to protest opposition calls for civil disobedience.

One of the Revival leaders, parliamentarian Djemal Gogitidze, urged radical opposition activists to end their calls for Shevardnadze's resignation and to close ranks behind what he described as the "constitutional order." Gogitidze also issued a veiled ultimatum to Saakashvili's supporters, saying time is running out before the political standoff takes a more confrontational tone.

"We are ready to mend fences with everyone today. We will be ready tomorrow, as well. But the day after tomorrow, it will be already too late. I call upon those who made a mistake to come to us and stand by us. Let us all declare today the day of reconciliation and the day of Georgia's salvation," Gogitidze said.

The political developments have raised concerns in the United States, which cooperates militarily with Shevardnadze's government and sees stability in Georgia as essential to its foreign policy in the post-Soviet sphere.

Addressing reporters on 14 November, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Washington does not support any particular party in the current confrontation. He once again called on Georgian authorities to ensure a fair count of the votes and urged all sides to show restraint. "We are not backing one candidate or another in this process," he said. "We are backing the rule of law. We are backing dialogue. We are backing transparency. Don't read my comments to be backing away for or against anybody. This is something that the Georgian people are going to have to work out."

Shevardnadze yesterday met behind closed doors with Richard Miles, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia. Speaking to reporters after the talks, Miles did not elaborate on the content of his conversation with the Georgian president.

Washington today dispatched Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe to Tbilisi in a last-ditch effort to mediate between Shevardnadze and his opponents. Pascoe met opposition leaders Burdjanadze and Zurab Zhvania. He is due to hold separate talks with Saakashvili and Shevardnadze later in the day before proceeding to neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia.