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Georgia: Tensions Remain High As Officials Unveil Final Election Results

Georgia's Central Election Commission today released the final returns of the disputed 2 November parliamentary election amid one of the most serious political crises President Eduard Shevardnadze has known in 11 years in office. The announcement puts an end to nearly three weeks of suspense, but does little to appease the opposition, which claims the vote was rigged.

Prague, 20 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Figures made public at a press conference by Central Election Commission Chairwoman Nana Devdariani show the pro-government For a New Georgia coalition garnered 21.3 percent of the vote, more than any single party but less that the combined total taken by its rivals.

Next comes Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze's power base, the Democratic Revival Union, which is technically in the opposition but has lent support to President Eduard Shevardnadze in the current standoff.

Revival, which collected 18.8 percent of the vote, is followed by four other opposition parties: the National Movement-Democratic Front (EM-DP) of Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili with just a little over 18 percent, the left-wing Labor Party with 12 percent, the coalition led by outgoing parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze with 8.8 percent, and the pro-business New Rightists party with 7.4 percent.

No other party crossed the 7 percent barrier required to enter parliament. Although it will control only 38 seats in the next legislature, the pro-government coalition will be able to get a working majority through temporary alliances.

More than half (150) of Georgia's 235 lawmakers are elected from party lists under a proportional system. The remainder are elected from single-mandate constituencies under a majoritarian system.

Commission Chairwoman Devdariani admitted to massive election fraud in some constituencies. But, while saying the way the vote was organized was far from ideal, she rejected accusations of overall falsification made by the radical opposition. "Let us not fool ourselves, this election was not a terrible experience," she said. "I do not agree with those who say we could not have done slightly better. All in all, however, we did our best given the time constraints we had. We did our best given the possibilities we had."

Devdariani's remarks are unlikely to ease tensions in the South Caucasus country, which has been the scene of daily protests staged by radical opposition groups that claim the government stole the vote.

Hundreds of EM-DP activists are expected to take part in a peaceful antigovernment march to Tbilisi from western and eastern Georgia to demand that the president resign. Saakashvili today said he would personally lead his supporters to Shevardnadze's office as soon as the president decides to convene the new legislature.

The government and the radical opposition have been engaged in a battle of wills for nearly three weeks, with each side expecting the other to be the first to make a mistake.

For the past three days, Abashidze supporters and Revival activists have been rallying in support of the government on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, thus preventing anti-Shevardnadze protesters from approaching the parliament building. Revival leaders say their protest aims at defending Georgia's "constitutional order" and preventing the radical opposition from staging a "coup." They have also vowed to continue their vigil until the next parliament convenes.

Except for a recent shooting incident in the western city of Zugdidi and a street scuffle yesterday in Bolnisi, south of Tbilisi, Georgia's political standoff has remained largely nonviolent. Yet, Shevardnadze has urged both his rivals and supporters to show restraint for fear of civil strife.

In response to Shevardnadze's warnings, Burdjanadze yesterday blamed the head of state and Abashidze for trying to pit one part of Georgian society against the other. "What is going on Rustaveli Avenue without doubt aims at triggering clashes between that part of society which supports the opposition and that other part of society that purportedly supports the government. Let me tell you that in Georgia there are absolutely no grounds for civil confrontation," Burdjanadze said. "What is happening today in Georgia is a confrontation between the government and the population."

Shevardnadze insists he will not resign until his mandate expires in 2005 and has ordered a criminal investigation into cases of alleged vote rigging and ballot-box stuffing. Addressing a cabinet meeting yesterday, the Georgian leader said officials guilty of fraud would be sentenced. Yet his rivals remain unappeased.

Adding to the general confusion, the opposition Labor Party has also raised the prospect of protest rallies. Labor, which has so far refused to endorse calls for Shevardnadze's resignation and has carefully avoided questioning the outcome of the polls, yesterday said it feared the government might strike a deal with radical opposition groups to avoid further political confrontation. One of the party's leaders, Djondi Bagaturia, said Labor lawmakers might consider boycotting the new legislature. "The Labor Party will examine the question of whether or not to endorse the results of the vote, sign the final election reports or take part in the work of the parliament -- or resort to more active forms of protest," he said.

Facing Interior Ministry troops equipped with metal shields, about 200 Labor Party members today briefly picketed the Central Election Commission building in central Tbilisi to demand a fair count of the votes. Talking to reporters during the rally, Bagaturia said the action was only meant as a warning to the government. "It is a 30-minute warning action," he said. "If the [Central Election Commission] steps over the framework set by the legislation when releasing the final results, we will consider more serious actions."

Georgia's political turmoil has had repercussions within state structures. Following a public rebuke from Shevardnadze, Georgian State Television head Zaza Shengelia yesterday resigned from his post. Addressing an improvised press briefing in his office, Shengelia explained his decision by saying he could no longer work in a company that gives "one-sided coverage" of political developments.

Hours before, Shevardnadze had criticized state television before his cabinet ministers for allegedly being too soft in its coverage of the opposition protests.

The presenter of the political talk show that apparently sparked Shevardnadze's outburst, Koba Kandiashvili, cut short his late-evening program yesterday and said he will keep his show off the air for an unspecified period of time.

Shengelia also accused Shevardnadze of being out of touch with his country. "Our president often finds himself in a certain vacuum," he said. "Members of his entourage -- most of the time, people with reactionary views -- are doing everything possible so that the president is unable to get a clear and exact picture of what is going on in the country."

Another state-appointed official, First Deputy Prosecutor-General Badri Bitsadze, today resigned from his post. Bitsadze gave no explanation for his decision but Georgian media have noted the former chief army prosecutor is also the husband of opposition leader Burdjanadze.

Although neither Shengelia nor Bitsadze were senior government officials, Saakashvili today claimed their resignations were a "serious blow" to Shevardnadze's regime.