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Georgia: After Shevardnadze, What Comes Next?

With Eduard Shevardnadze out of power in Georgia, the question is now, what comes next? The prospect of prolonged political confusion frightens many Georgians, accustomed to the violence and disorder of the country's 12 years of independence.

Prague, 24 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Events are moving quickly in Georgia following yesterday's resignation -- amid strong opposition pressure -- of President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Shevardnadze resigned after demonstrators besieged parliament, claiming parliamentary elections held on 2 November had been rigged in the president's favor.

The speaker of the outgoing parliament, Nino Burdjanadze, will serve as interim president until new presidential elections can be held within 45 days. The date for this vote now looks to be the first weekend in January.

But there are lingering questions about when new parliamentary elections can be held.

Much will depend on the country's supreme court, which has the power to annul the 2 November vote and is expected to rule on the matter soon. Gia Nodia, a Georgian political scientist, says the way forward should become clearer after a court ruling. "The situation [regarding the parliamentary polls] is not quite clear from the legal point of view because the results of the previous parliamentary elections have not been legally cancelled. However, it is expected that the Supreme Court will do it."

Experts say if the court rules the recent parliamentary elections invalid, the old parliament will resume work. A date for new elections must be set within 60 days after reconvening the old parliament.

If the court rules that the 2 November election was valid -- after the results have been reviewed and corrected -- it's not clear what would happen next. This is said to be a less likely outcome, but nonetheless conceivable.

There is also the possibility the former parliament would reconvene or that the new parliament could meet and try to legitimize itself.

Georgian policy experts are split on the timing of the two votes -- whether it would be better to have the presidential and parliamentary polls at the same time or on different days. Some say it would be more convenient to hold parliamentary elections after a permanent head of state is already in place.

Nodia says a good time to hold such an election might be in the spring and that this solution would be supported by constitutional regulations.

Another question concerns the balance of political power in the wake of the protests and yesterday's resignation.

Many speculate that with the main goal -- Shevardnadze's ouster -- achieved, the political opposition will automatically fragment. Nodia, however, doubts that the chief opposition groups and the protest leaders -- the National Movement of Mikhail Saakashvili and the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc -- will split. Nodia says Saakashvili emerged as a clear front-runner. He has already announced that he will run for president.

"The National Movement and the Burdjanadze-Democrats will most likely come forward as a joint bloc. [However,] there are some frictions between the leaders. As for the other players, I think it became clear that the bloc 'For a New Georgia,' that used to support the government, will no longer exist in its former form. It was gathered with a lot of difficulty around Shevardnadze, who is no longer present. It is clear that the Labor Party and the new right force -- two other serious parties of the opposition -- lost many supporters because they did not support the protests. There is also the Revival party of Aslan Abashidze. But Abashidze may boycott the new elections," Nodia said.

Analysts point out that there are other groups and individuals who might want to join the presidential race, but their chances are considered to be remote.

Many say they are still concerned about possible violence -- even though the protests and change of power so far have been peaceful. Nodia says he believes the threat of clashes or conflict has passed for now.

"I think such a threat [of violence] is generally over. No violent development could be foreseen because there are no sides of the conflict. All the state structures refused to support Shevardnadze during that revolution and will keep loyal to the new government," Nodia said.

Nevertheless, foreign governments continue to stress -- and possibly over stress -- that any change in the country be carried out peacefully.