Sun, Nov 16, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Nationwide effort to oust Georgian president continues

AFP , TBILISI, GEORGIA

Opponents of Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze pressed their demands for him to step down yesterday with a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience despite warnings that they risked dragging the turbulent republic into civil war.

Thousands of protesters have been demonstrating round-the-clock for over a week in the capital, Tbilisi, over a parliamentary election which the opposition claims was rigged to rob them of victory.

Shevardnadze stood firm on Friday when about 15,000 people -- the biggest turnout since the protests started -- marched on his offices. They were turned back by roadblocks and ranks of interior ministry troops, some of them wielding automatic weapons.

About a thousand people were still protesting yesterday outside the parliament building in Tbilisi, but as the protests entered their eighth day, opposition leaders changed tack.

They are appealing to government workers to come out on strike, to ordinary citizens to stop paying their bills and taxes and to their supporters to form pickets outside government offices to "paralyze" the work of the state.

"We are starting an action of protest with one demand: the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze," said Mikhail Saakashvili, the opposition party leader who has been at the forefront of the protests.

"We do not expect the government to change its mind within a day or two but [the protests] will go on until Shevardnadze ... submits to the demands for his resignation."

In Moscow, Aslan Abashidze, a Shevardnadze ally and head of the autonomous region of Adjara on the Black Sea coast, said after talks with Russian officials that the situation in Georgia was developing "unpredictably."

The regional chieftain, whose Revival Party party came second in the poll, warned that "this process must not break out of the constitutional framework" and said there were "many political mechanisms for resolving the situation," the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

Abashidze on Friday met Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, having earlier travelled to Caucasian neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan on what has been seen as a diplomatic mission on Shevardnadze's behalf.

During Friday's protests, Shevardnadze had a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin who voiced his wish for "a stable Georgia."

The situation in Tbilisi by midday yesterday was muted. Zviad, an electricity company employee in the eastern Georgian region of Kakheti, said he and his colleagues were at work as usual.

"How can you not come to work?" he said. "That would mean leaving thousands of people without electricity and heat."

Incomplete results from the Nov. 2 parliamentary election give the lead to Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia bloc, despite exit polls showing that Saakashvili's National Movement was the clear winner.

The opposition and international observers have said the vote was a travesty.

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