Sat, Nov 15, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Ballot recount ordered as Georgia protests continue


Protesters angered by the alleged rigging of this month's national elections kept up their pressure on the government on Thursday with a sixth consecutive day of demonstrations outside the national parliament and others occupied a government building in a provincial city.

In a move likely to complicate resolving the tensions, a court on Thursday ordered a recount of ballots that gave one of the main opposition figures a seat in parliament. The Tbilisi demonstrators, whose numbers swell from hundreds during the day to thousands at night, are demanding the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze and the annulment of results from the Nov. 2 parliamentary elections. Leaders of the protests vowed Thursday they would not back down.

"There is no alternative to the resignation of Shevardnadze. We are fighting in order for us to have a future," said National Movement party leader Mikhail Saakashvili, the most tough-talking of the opposition figures.

In a sign that anger was spreading outside the capital, a group of protesters estimated at up to 200 occupied a government building in Zugdidi, about 250km west of Tbilisi, and announced they were beginning a hunger strike. They are reportedly members of a political faction led by Gurab Absandze, the finance minister under Georgia's first post-Soviet president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was ousted in a 1992 uprising.

Saakashvili praised the Tbilisi demonstrators for keeping the protests peaceful.

"The whole world has seen that we are having a peaceful action.... No one can label us extremists, radicals, or enemies of the people," he said.

Also Thursay, Nino Burdzhanadze of the opposition Democrats, another key protest leader, was informed that a court in Kutaisi had ordered a recount of the ballots that showed she won a parliament seat.

"I have the impression that the authorities are throwing wood on the fire," she said.

Election results, still incomplete 10 days after the voting, show the pro-government bloc For a New Georgia is leading, followed by the opposition Revival party, which tends to support the government on key issues, and the more radical National Movement.

The tally has shown For a New Georgia getting only about 20 percent of the votes, but the National Movement and the smaller opposition Democrats, claim that even that result is inflated.

Meanwhile, Revival leader Aslan Abashidze flew to Moscow for a meeting yesterday with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the latest step in a flurry of activity that has prompted many in the opposition to speculate that Shevardnadze is aiming to hand over power to him.

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