Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the onetime Soviet foreign minister who helped end the Cold War, faced a growing crisis Saturday as opposition supporters rallied in his Caucasus nation's capital to demand that he step down.
Key opposition politicians urged Shevardnadze, 75, to resign in the wake of alleged fraud in parliamentary elections held Nov. 2. The president and the nation's top religious leader appealed for calm, warning that the country risked slipping into a violent civil conflict.
"Georgia without Shevardnadze," read placards carried by protesters. Police guarded key government buildings and the presidential residence against the crowd of about 10,000.
"I am not going to overthrow the government by force," Mikheil Saakashvili, head of the National Movement, a leading opposition party, told the rally in central Tbilisi, the capital. "It is necessary to change the government in the country peacefully."
But Saakashvili urged his supporters to rally outside parliament "until Shevardnadze recognizes the victory of opposition forces in the Nov. 2 elections," the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported.
He warned that if Shevardnadze refused, "supporters will break through the cordons" and go to the president's residence to demand his resignation.
"Today and tomorrow there will be tens of thousands of people standing here, and we will not leave until Shevardnadze is gone and freedom has triumphed," Saakashvili declared.
Shevardnadze's second term ends in 2005, at which time current law would require him to step down. The results of the recent balloting will determine whether the opposition or pro-government forces control parliament for the rest of his term.
With about 90% of the vote counted, the Central Election Commission on Saturday reported that the Revival Union led with 21%, followed by the pro-Shevardnadze "For a New Georgia" bloc with 20%, the National Movement with 19%, Labor with 12% and the Burjanadze Democrats with 8%. Smaller parties garnering less than the 7% required to enter parliament took the remaining votes.
The opposition contends that the real level of support for the Revival Union, led by a regional strongman, and Shevardnadze's bloc is far less than the announced results. And it fears that the alleged voting irregularities may enable the two groups to jointly control parliament.
International observers said the day after the election that it was marred by flaws ranging from incomplete voter lists to improper balloting procedures. Many opposition supporters are convinced that the vote count was wildly fraudulent. Preelection opinion polls had predicted that the opposition would easily win.
Revival Union leader Aslan Abashidze runs the autonomous Adzharia region on Georgia's Black Sea coast virtually as a private fiefdom, complete with its own military forces, and opposition parties have difficulty operating there. The Adzharian parliament further tightened his grip on power last week by amending the regional constitution to make him the republic's "supreme state, political and military official."
But unlike the Russia-oriented breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have exercised de facto independence since secession wars in the early 1990s, the Adzharia region participates in Georgian national politics. Abashidze has often worked as a political ally of Shevardnadze.
In a televised speech Friday night, Shevardnadze noted the civil wars of a decade ago in calling for "dialogue" between the government and the opposition.
"It is hard to offer dialogue to radically minded opponents who are touring the country and preparing for anti-government rallies," he said, as quoted by Itar-Tass. "But dialogue must begin ... to prevent transformation of civilian confrontation into a civil war, a regretful experience that Georgia has had."
A brief civil war during the 1991-92 winter, viewed by Shevardnadze's opponents as a coup, led to the ouster of Georgia's first democratically elected leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Military leaders then invited Shevardnadze to assume power. Several years of conflict in South Ossetia was ended a few months later by a truce that allowed the area to go its own way. But major fighting erupted in Abkhazia, and Georgia lost control of that region in 1993.
Georgia's Orthodox patriarch, Ilia II, warned Saturday that the election dispute is moving beyond the political realm toward civil conflict, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
"The conflicting sides should see the danger they are facing," he said. "They should reason as Orthodox Christians and make a step toward peace."
Violence against protesters was reported in regional incidents Friday and Saturday.
Georgian television reported that unidentified gunmen opened fire Saturday on protesters traveling to Tbilisi for the rally, injuring a woman. The report was from the hospital where she had been admitted.
Before the start of a National Movement rally Friday in the western town of Zugdidi, men armed with semiautomatic rifles and grenade launchers opened fire, shooting first into the air. At least two people were reported injured. Russian television showed scenes of the chaos as shots were fired in an apparent effort to intimidate rather than kill. The gunmen fled, and the protesters regrouped to carry on with a rally that evening at which Saakashvili spoke.
"On orders from the president and the interior minister, criminals hired by them tried to intimidate people, but that provocation has not worked," Saakashvili declared. "The armed attack has brought people even closer together in fighting the authorities."