Georgia crisis deepens as Shevardnadze named victor

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The Independent Online

The long-awaited results of a parliamentary election that has brought the former Soviet republic of Georgia to the brink of civil war were released yesterday, giving the president's bloc more seats than any other party.

Opposition leaders alleged the vote on 2 November was rigged. International observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have backed their claims, citing "spectacular irregularities" on election day.

Thousands of opposition supporters have for two weeks rallied in the capital, Tbilisi, calling for new elections and the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Last week more than 10,000 people marched on the President's office, joining hands to form a human chain around the building. The opposition last night vowed to hold a nationwide march to call on Mr Shevardnadze to step down.

Western governments are keeping a close eye on the escalating crisis. Earlier this year, construction began on a pipeline in Georgia to transport a million barrels of crude oil a day through the country from the Caspian Sea to Turkey.

A return to the civil war that racked Georgia during the early 1990s would put the safety of the pipeline in jeopardy and the multi-billion-dollar investment at risk. The Caspian Sea is thought to hold the world's third-largest reserves of oil and gas, which are alternatives to supplies from the Middle East.

The Central Election Commission announced yesterday that President Shevardnadze's bloc, For a New Georgia, wonmore than 21 per cent of the votes,ahead of the Revival bloc of Aslan Abashidze, a powerful regional leader. Mr Abashidze, who controls the Black Sea region of Ajaria, and Mr Shevardnadze are long-standing enemies. But the deepening political crisis in the country has forced them to form a political alliance. About half of the parliament will now consist of pro-government members.

The opposition party of US-educated Mikhail Saakashvili, the National Movement, came third. Mr Saakashvili has warned he will organise more mass rallies. He said he had collected a million signatures supporting a call for the President to step aside. Several opposition members of parliament have gone on a hunger strike.

This week, Mr Saakashvili called for a "campaign of civil disobedience". He urged Georgians to stop paying their taxes and to strike. He said they should block government buildings to prevent civil servants from going to work.

But there have also been demonstrations in support of President Shevardnadze. On Wednesday, about 10,000 people crowded into the Palace of Sport in the capital where they listened to pro-government speeches before marching down Tbilisi's main street to parliament.

But many had arrived in buses overnight from remote regions and did not appear to have a clear idea of what they were doing. A man called Giorgi, who had been given a flag to wave, said: "I'm not interested in politics. I'm just here to defend my country."

And some of Mr Shevardnadze's allies were abandoning ship. Zaza Shengeliya, a former friend of the President, resigned this week as the head of state television and radio after Mr Shevardnadze criticised the network's coverage of the country's crisis. Mr Shengeliya said: "I cannot head a TV station which gives one-sided information only and does not convey opposition views. The President is living in a vacuum and people around him are doing everything to ensure that he doesn't have a genuine and clear picture of what is happening in the country."

Georgians blame Mr Shevardnadze for chronic poverty in what used to be one of the most affluent Soviet republics.

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