Shevardnadze confronts hostile demonstrators

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The Independent Online

Georgia's President, Eduard Shevardnadze, was fighting for political survival yesterday after thousands of opposition supporters gathered outside the parliament building for a second day, demanding his resignation.

Mr Shevardnadze, who was Foreign Minister at the collapse of the Soviet Union, walked through a hostile crowd early yesterday morning to speak to the demonstrators face-to-face. It was a bold step for a man who has survived two assassination attempts in the past 10 years. But it was a sign of how far the man they call "the White Fox" is prepared to go to hang on to his job.

Mr Shevardnadze said: "I was elected by the Georgian people and I do not intend to resign at the demand of individual politicians and a few dozen young people waving flags. I cannot allow people who would destroy and devastate everything to come to power."

The opposition vowed to resume protests late yesterday after its leaders walked out of a two-hour meeting with the veteran leader. "The President does not want to satisfy our demands. Mass protests will continue," said Mikhail Saakashvili, leader of the opposition National Movement bloc.

The rallies were sparked by a controversial parliamentary election on 2 November. Opposition leaders claim the results of the poll were rigged in favour of Mr Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia party. With most of the votes counted, For a New Georgia appeared to have more seats than any other single bloc.

A team of more than 400 observers from Western institutions condemned the vote, saying they had witnessed irregularities. On Saturday, the head of the Central Election Commission said counting had been suspended because of many complaints.

Across the country, opposition supporters took to the streets, demanding the results of the vote be annulled and fresh elections called. Georgians blame Mr Shevardnadze for severe levels of poverty and unemployment in what used to be an affluent nation.

Nona Magradze runs an orphanage for 120 children in the capital, Tbilisi. She earns 40 lari, or £13, a month. She has been in the job for 23 years and she says conditions in Georgia have never been so bad. "People have to get by on pitiful wages," she said. "There are regular power cuts, public services don't work, the roads are full of holes." Most of the children have parents, but they are so poor they cannot afford to look after them. The children are given a bowl of hot soup every day and warm clothes and slippers to wear ­ far more than they would get at home.

At one of the rallies in Tbilisi at the weekend, Konstantin Lomidze echoed Ms Magradze's frustrations. "We desperately need change," he said. "We have no faith in our President any more, it is time he bowed out. There are people here today from the intelligentsia, professors, students, pensioners, doctors."

Most of the demonstrations have been peaceful. But there are fears of a return to the civil unrest that overtook the country in the early 1990s, when renegade army units shot at the parliament building and drove tanks through the capital. On Friday, dozens of armed men opened fire on a crowd of opposition supporters in the town of Zugdidi, about 170 miles from Tbilisi in western Georgia. One woman was shot in the foot and a man was injured.

Some say Mr Shevardnadze is not likely to relinquish his job without a fight. "He's a survivor," said Ghia Nodia, the director of the Caucasus Insti- tute for Peace, Democracy and Development. "He hasn't come so close to losing power since 1993. But he isn't doomed yet."