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Georgia: Opposition Prepares To March On Capital As Government Allies Occupy City Center

Opponents of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze are preparing to march on Tbilisi to demand his resignation following disputed parliamentary polls. Meanwhile, allies of the veteran leader continue to rally near Parliament, vowing to defend Georgia's "constitutional order." Developments in the Southern Caucasus country took an unexpected turn after Shevardnadze publicly criticized state media for not being supportive enough of the government.

Prague, 19 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Radical opposition activists today continued plans for a peaceful march to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to demand that President Eduard Shevardnadze resign amid controversy sparked by a recent legislative election.

The marchers are expected to depart from the western city of Zugdidi, led by Tbilisi City Council chairman Mikhail Saakashvili, who is also the leader of the National Movement-Democratic Front party. They were initially scheduled to arrive in the Georgian capital later today, but the march was delayed, reportedly to allow more time to prepare.

Saakashvili's supporters have been staging daily rallies in Tbilisi and other Georgian cities to protest the alleged falsification of the 2 November parliamentary polls.

Ballot counting operations have been agonizingly slow, adding fuel to opposition claims of massive vote rigging and triggering renewed concerns in the United States, Georgia's biggest aid donor and closest military partner.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe arrived in Tbilisi yesterday in an attempt to broker a negotiated solution to the standoff. Speaking to reporters after separate talks with Shevardnadze and his main opponents, Pascoe said Washington will not meddle in Georgia's political affairs, but is pressing both sides to urgently reach a compromise: "Our interest has been to help the Georgian people and the government [of Georgia] to carry out the best election as possible under the circumstances today. For us, it is very important that the issue that has been raised in the election be resolved. But it is not our job to tell people how to do it."

Also yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli urged Georgian authorities to ensure that the deadline for counting the votes is met: "We expect the Georgian government to announce final election results this Thursday, November 20, which is the deadline for doing so in Georgia's election code."

Partial results released by the Central Election Commission show the National Movement came third, just behind the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia coalition and the Democratic Revival Union of Adjaria leader Aslan Abashidze.

Saakashvili, however, says the election was fraudulent and claims his party garnered more votes than any other group.

A Tbilisi-based independent election watchdog known as the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy yesterday said that, in some regions, the election was marred by numerous irregularities and manipulations that profited pro-government and Revival candidates. The group, however, stopped short of denouncing an overall falsification of the vote.

In the meantime, actors in the ongoing political standoff remain undeterred, and no one shows signs of compromise as the deadline for releasing final election results approaches.

Addressing a cabinet meeting today, Shevardnadze rejected any responsibility for the standoff. The Georgian president instead blamed outgoing parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze for failing to push through election reforms in the legislature, which he said led to the current crisis.

Burjanadze shares the leadership of the so-called Burjanadze-Democrats coalition with former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania and has been one of the main initiators of the ongoing protest movement.

But, unlike Zhvania and Saakashvili, Burjanadze is not calling for Shevardnadze's resignation. She is only demanding that ballots be recounted or that the vote be invalidated in Georgia's most controversial election districts, such as Adjaria or the southern Kvemo-Kartli region.

As he has done in recent days, Shevardnadze today said he is ready to renew dialogue with his main opponents, provided they renounce the idea of forcing him out of office. He also suggested he does not want to meet either Saakashvili or Zhvania alone.

"If it can help and if they give up some of their adventurist demands, I am ready to meet them, either individually or all three of them simultaneously," Shevardnadze said. "I believe that last option could better meet the interests of our country."

Tentative talks between Shevardnadze and radical opposition leaders were aborted last week (9 November) after Saakashvili abruptly left the negotiating table. Although he later held talks with one of Shevardnadze's top aides, the National Movement leader claims he will not maintain contact with the Georgian leadership until the president resigns.

Small rallies numbering between 300 and 500 Saakashvili supporters were held yesterday in Rustavi, Poti, Zestafoni, Zugdidi, Abasha, Samtredia, and Akhaltsikhe. At the same time, an estimated 10,000 Revival supporters took to the streets of Tbilisi to protest radical opposition plans to oust Shevardnadze from office.

Most demonstrators were reportedly brought in on specially chartered buses from the Black Sea port of Batumi, the capital of Abashidze's fiefdom of Adjaria.

Some 600 Revival supporters kept a night vigil in front of parliament, in the city center, and thousands more joined them early today.

Tsotne Bakuria, the outspoken head of Revival's Tbilisi branch, today told reporters that the protest movement is aimed at defending Georgia's "constitutional order" against what he called the "extremist" nature of the National Movement.

"We demand that the whole of Georgia stand united under a single motto: 'No to fascism," Bakuria said. "No to extremism, No to civil confrontation.' Let us all defend Georgia's constitutional order and respect the legitimacy of the state. Let us hold each of Georgia's citizens in respect. Let us not offend our fellow citizens like [Tbilisi] City Council chairman [Saakashvili] does through his paranoid statements."

Revival and Abashidze have had conflicting relations with Shevardnadze in the past -- sometimes opposing his policies, sometimes lending him support. From the outset of the current crisis, the maverick Adjar leader has sided with the Georgian president against Saakashvili. Last week he toured Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on Shevardnadze's behalf in a bid to muster the support of those countries' leaders.

Although yesterday's demonstrations were largely perceived as a show of support for the embattled Georgian leader, Shevardnadze today called on the Adjar leadership to show restraint and avoid confrontation with the radical opposition.

"There is only one step to civil war from civil confrontation," he said, echoing concerns of possible violence when Saakashvili's supporters reach the capital.

In a surprise move -- and what could be his first mistake since the beginning of the standoff -- Shevardnadze today publicly criticized the country's state-owned television channel for its biased coverage of the crisis.

Addressing cabinet ministers, Shevardnadze instead praised the work of private television broadcasts such as Mze, or Imedi, the media group owned by Badri Patarkatsishvili -- a close aide to exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovskii, who reportedly raised funds for pro-government candidates:

"I am earnestly asking printed media and television broadcast companies -- first of all, the first [state] television channel -- to cover events as they need be covered. One cannot stand simultaneously on both sides [of the barricades]. One television channel -- at least one -- ought to work for the benefit of the state. I have to tell you that Imedi, Mze, and other channels are doing a much better job. But I definitely cannot thank the first television channel."

Hours after Shevardnadze's outburst, Georgian state television chairman Zaza Shengelia convened an improvised press briefing at which he announced his resignation.

"I will not work with a television company that gives coverage to only one side of the political stage," Georgian media quoted Shengelia as saying.