Shevardnadze on the brink as Georgian opposition proclaims 'velvet revolution'

The embattled Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had to be hustled from the parliament building in Tbilisi by bodyguards yesterday after hundreds of opposition demonstrators stormed the building.

They broke in while Mr Shevardnadze, re-elected after a contested election earlier this month, was convening the new parliament.

Georgia's opposition parties say the election was rigged and have demanded Mr Shevardnadze's resignation. Led by opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili the demonstrators overturned tables and chairs and leapt on to the podium. Fist fights broke out after Mr Saakashvili ordered Mr Shevardnadze's supporters to leave the building. He then claimed the "velvet revolution has taken place".

The Georgian parliament's outgoing speaker and leader of another opposition group, Nino Burjanadze, said she was taking on the role of President. "I, as chairman of the Georgian parliament, in accordance with the constitution, will take on the functions of the President until such time as it becomes clear whether he [Shevardnadze] has the ability to continue," Ms Burjanadze said.

But Mr Shevardnadze, 75, the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union, vowed not to resign. He declared a state of emergency and accused the opposition of staging an "armed coup".

"I will not resign. I will resign when the presidential term expires, according to the constitution," he said before his car, accompanied by armed guards in riot gear, pulled away from the parliament building. He later added: "This is an attempt at a coup d'état and an attempt to overthrow the President. I'm declaring a state of emergency. This is a special order and the Defence Ministry as well as the Interior Ministry will be involved in it. And we will restore order."

The head of police declared he would remain loyal to Mr Shevardnadze.

Mr Saakashvili later said President Shevardnadze could stay in office on condition it was only to usher in an early presidential election. "We won't accept anything short of [early presidential elections]," he said. "If he announces for himself some transitional period for new presidential elections, that's fine. If he wants to call [them], we can still negotiate on that."

The contested election has thrown the poverty-stricken state into its biggest crisis since it broke away from the Soviet Union 12 years ago.

The capital had become increasingly tense with both pro- and anti-Shevardnadze forces refusing to give ground and amassing thousands of supporters. Earlier Mr Saakashvili told a rally of 25,000 people in Freedom Square that Mr Shevardnadze had one hour to "come to the people or the people would come to him".

Police in body armour were posted in front of all the main government buildings and Shevardnadze supporters camped out in front of the parliament building. But the heavily armed police gave little resistance when the demonstrators advanced.

Mr Shevardnadze said that he was ready for dialogue with the opposition, but "without any ultimatums".

"Parliament was elected and ... parliament should begin work today," he said.

He also acknowledged that there had been some breaches in the election, which the pro-Shevardnadze party won according to the official results. "About 8 to 10 per cent of the ballots were invalid," he said, but added that this should be dealt with in the courts.

US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the election results reflected "massive vote fraud" in some regions and "do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people". Georgia has strategic significance for the Americans as a potential transit route for a pipeline to bring oil from central Asia to the West.

Georgia's top security official, Tedo Japaridze, also acknowledged on Friday that the vote - which independent exit pollers said the opposition appeared to have won - had been tarnished by fraud. He said a new parliament should be considered temporary until a new vote can be held.

The pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia bloc came in first with 21.32 per cent of the vote, while the Revival party, which has been critical of the government but sided with Mr Shevardnadze in the present crisis, finished second with 18.84 per cent. Mr Saakashvili's National Movement came in a very close third with 18.08 per cent of the vote. Russia also acknowledged that the election was marred and called for the "mistakes to be corrected, but in the realm of the law".

Ms Burjanadze said: "For two weeks we have been trying very hard to avoid this but Shevardnadze has done nothing to avoid this. Georgians won in these parliamentary elections when they said it was time to stop mocking the Georgian people."

Comments