Protests Grow in Georgia; Crisis Deepens

Times Staff Writer

Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, appearing shaken by mounting protests demanding his resignation, pleaded with his countrymen Friday not to risk civil war -- and hinted that if the crisis eases, he might resign.

His critics responded by holding the largest in a series of daily anti-Shevardnadze demonstrations. Mikheil Saakashvili, a key opposition leader, called for a civil disobedience campaign starting today aimed at paralyzing the government.

Accused by opposition leaders of rigging the results of Nov. 2 parliamentary elections, Shevardnadze declared in a nationally televised news conference Friday morning that whatever vote-counting irregularities had occurred could be corrected, but insisted that the new parliament should be allowed to open later this month.

"Once the parliament begins to work and the legislative branch enters into force, then maybe I will be the first to sign an act of resignation of the president," Shevardnadze said. "But to resign now would be an irresponsible step on my part."

Shevardnadze begged citizens not to join an afternoon protest in the capital, Tbilisi, warning that even if opposition leaders did not want violence, the situation risked escalation.

"I will not allow a split in society followed by confrontation and a civil war," he said. "This is a real danger. I am not threatening anyone. I am simply telling you the truth. Before it is too late, we should come to our senses."

Although the protest went ahead as planned, both demonstrators and police showed restraint. News agencies estimated the crowd, which gathered near parliament, at 15,000 to 20,000. Russian television showed helmeted riot police with shields -- some wearing masks -- watching over the demonstration.

Protesters marched from parliament to the heavily guarded State Chancellery, which houses Shevardnadze's offices and residence. Saakashvili urged them to form a "human chain" in nearby streets to encircle the building, which they did, according to reports from Tbilisi. Then he made his announcement calling for a civil disobedience campaign and told the crowd that the rally would resume Monday.

"We are declaring total civil disobedience to President Shevardnadze's regime," Saakashvili told the crowd in comments broadcast on Georgian television.

"I want to call on police not to obey the unlawful orders of the regime," he said. "I want to call on the army not to act on the unlawful commander-in-chief's illegal orders. I want to call on the business representatives: 'Pay only those taxes that will go toward payment of salaries and pensions.' "

Counting of ballots from the Nov. 2 election continues but has slowed in recent days, with initial results annulled in some districts due to irregularities. Earlier this week, with more than 90% of the ballots counted, parties likely to support Shevardnadze in parliament had 41% support and opposition groups had 38%. The opposition contends that the president stole the election and may be able to control parliament as a result.

Fears of violence built Friday afternoon after Irana Sarishvili, a leader of a pro-Shevardnadze bloc, For a New Georgia, told journalists that about 200 of the protesters were carrying weapons, and Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili warned of "dire consequences" if armed opposition were to storm the presidential offices or residence.

The current crisis in Georgia evokes sharp memories of the political turbulence and warfare that marred the early years of the country's independence. A civil war during the 1991-92 winter led to the ouster of Georgia's first democratically elected leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Military leaders then invited Shevardnadze to assume power.

Shevardnadze has been respected in the West for his role, as Soviet foreign minister, in helping to end the Cold War. But during Friday's rally, Saakashvili compared him to the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- analogies he has made before. "We are no worse than the Romanians and the Serbs, who overthrew their rulers," Saakashvili declared.

Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989 and executed by firing squad. Milosevic was driven from office in 2000 after massive demonstrations protesting electoral fraud; he is on trial in The Hague for alleged war crimes.

Shevardnadze ridiculed this kind of verbal attack.

"I am not frightened," he declared. "I will not share the fate of either Ceausescu or Milosevic."

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