Georgia returns to normal after bloodless revolution

Chloe Arnold
Monday 24 November 2003 01:00 GMT

Georgian opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze pledged today to hold elections in 45 days and called on police and security services to restore order after a wave of protest swept President Eduard Shevardnadze from office.

"Order must be restored immediately not only in Tbilisi but also in all the regions of the country," Ms Burdzhanadze said in a nationally televised speech. She has assumed the powers of temporary president.

Life in Tbilisi appeared to be returning to normal today after a night of street parties, and only a few dozen stragglers stood outside the parliament building, the epicentre of the protests. Traffic flowed freely along Tbilisi's main Rustaveli avenue for the first time in days, with the bustle of a normal work week getting under way.

Mr Shevardnadze, relinquished power last night after parliament was seized by thousands of opposition supporters in a velvet revolution.

After a day of fast-moving negotiations, threats and ultimatums, a dejected Mr Shevardnadze bowed to what had become increasingly inevitable and told state television that he was quitting.

"I have never betrayed my people and I am stating now, too, that it is probably better for the President to resign, so that this situation ends peacefully and blood is not spilt and no casualties are caused," he said outside his palatial residence in a suburb of the capital, Tbilisi.

He had spent a frantic day in talks with opposition leaders and the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, who flew into the capital early yesterday to mediate.

While Mr Shevardnadze announced his resignation, officials were preparing his private aircraft at Tbilisi's airport. But Mr Shevardnadze said that he would not leave the country.

Hours earlier, the leader of the opposition National Movement, Mikhail Saakashvili, called on his supporters to march on Mr Shevardnadze's home and force him to quit.

The leader's position hung in the balance after thousands of Georgians, furious over fraudulent elections on 2 November, stormed the parliament building on Saturday, breaking down the doors to get into the inner chamber. They clambered over desks and MPs to get to the podium, where Mr Shevardnadze was opening the first session. Mr Saakashvili took the floor, while bodyguards hustled the President out of the building. Later that same day, Mr Shevardnadze's grip on power weakened further when the protesters barged their way into the presidential administration building, forcing officials to flee. Mr Shevardnadze was not there at the time.

There were scenes of jubilation in Tbilisi after his resignation. Fireworks lit up the skies and there was gridlock on Rustaveli Prospect, the capital's main street, after hundreds of cars and trucks drove past with horns blaring, with some delighted Georgians clambering on to roofs and bonnets to celebrate. Others brought out vodka and held impromptu parties in the street.

Ms Burjanadze, speaker of the last parliament, announced that she would assume presidential powers until fresh elections were called. The opposition said parliamentary elections would be called in 45 days, but did not say when presidential elections would be held.

Many Georgians said the turning point came when army units refused to obey calls to stand by to avert a confrontation. Several hundred soldiers said they were joining opposition protesters in their calls for the President to resign. One soldier said that he would not follow orders to use force. "I am not with the government and I am not with the opposition," he said. "I am with the people, and I will not take up arms against them."

The thousands of people outside parliament last night were showing no signs of leaving. "I'm just too happy to leave," said Chiko Digauri, a student at the Academy of Arts. "We have finally won. Mr Shevardnadze did not leave - we forced him out. Now everything will be great. Now we can live again."

Gabro Gudaidze, an unemployed factory worker said yesterday was the best day of his life. "We are delighted that the President has gone," he said. "I do not know what will happen now, but this is already better. It's a victory for Georgia."

Possibly the youngest person at the rally was a 25-day-old baby girl, Ana, whose parents had brought her along in a battered pram.

"We wanted her to be here," they said. "Now, thank God, she will not have to lead the miserable life we have led."

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