Georgian opposition copied Serbs' bloodless revolution

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The Independent Online

Georgia's Parliament set 4 January as the date for new presidential elections yesterday, after the bloodless "rose revolution" that saw President Eduard Shevardnadze's departure at the weekend.

The election date was agreed after Georgia's highest court invalidated the elections which saw the ruling party try to hold on to power by brazenly stuffing ballot boxes and changing voter lists in plain sight of foreign election monitors. Members of the legislature gathered in the parliament building, the epicentre of the country's recent protests, and overwhelmingly decided to press ahead with the elections.

"We should stand side by side independent of nationalities, independent of political interests," said parliamentary speaker and interim President Nino Budrzhanadze. "Today we are starting a new era." A vase of red roses stood on the speaker's lectern, a reminder of the flowers many of the protesters carried.

Before the parliament convened, Mikhail Saakashvili, another opposition leader and the expected successor to Mr Shevardnadze, warned of the risk of civil war if the new elections do not proceed as planned. "If this session doesn't set new elections, Georgia will find itself in a state of civil war," the American-educated former justice minister said in a televised statement.

Mr Saakashvili has warned that there remains a potential for violence. Concern is growing that Adzharia, an autonomous province in southwestern Georgia on the Black Sea led by his opponent, Aslan Abashidze may now seek independence from Georgia.

Mr Abashidze warned yesterday that Adzharia was breaking off relations with the capital, Tbilisi, until a new president was elected. Train and air service were cut and regional security forces sealed the borders with the rest of the country. Mr Abashidze said his region would boycott the parliament.

The country's interim leaders have vowed to bring political stability to the country as quickly as possible. "I'm going to do everything to maintain stability and peace in the country," Ms Burdzhanadze said.

Georgia's new power brokers are following in the footsteps of the opposition movement which deposed Yugoslavia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, in October 2000 after a similar popular uprising.

Opposition leaders went to Belgrade to learn the lessons of their revolution and then arranged for their Serbian counterparts to travel to Tbilisi. All last summer members of Serbia's opposition organisation Otpor (Resistance) slipped into Georgia to run training courses in civil disobedience for thousands of students.

Financed by the George Soros foundation, they organised the mostly student opposition under the slogan Kmara! (Enough!) which was modelled on the Serbian anti-Milosevic slogan "You're cooked!"

The US government also funded courses for the opposition parties in techniques for building independent democratic institutions in the country. As Ivane Merabishvili, general secretary of the National Movement party that led the revolt told the Washington Post's Peter Baker: "All the demonstrators knew the tactics of the revolution in Belgrade by heart. Everyone knew what to do. This was a copy of that revolution, only louder."

Georgia's new rulers now face a struggle to rebuild their poverty-stricken country. Political sabotage, corruption, separatist threats and an economic quagmire threaten to drag the country down. One of the first tasks will be to restore relations with the IMF, the EU and other aid donors who walked away from the country because of systemic corruption and mismanagement.