Tue, Nov 25, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Shevardnadze toppled by those he mentored

APF , TBILISI

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov right, meets the three Georgian main opposition leaders, Mikhail Saakashvili, left, Nino Burdzhanadze, second left, and Zurab Zhvania, third on the left, in Tbilisi on Sunday. Ivanov had meet earlier with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze before the Georgian leader decided to stepped down.

PHOTO: AFP

The young opposition leaders who toppled Eduard Shevardnadze from Georgia's presidency this weekend were people he befriended, nurtured and launched on their political careers before they turned against him.

Like Shakespeare's tragic hero King Lear, 75-year-old Shevardnadze was ruined by those he loved the most.

The former Soviet foreign minister handed in his resignation Sunday night after thousands of protesters stormed parliament and the presidential administration and won the security forces over on to their side, leaving him in a hopeless position.

The drama reached its climax when the opposition leaders who had been spearheading the protests invited themselves to his official residence just outside the capital to demand that he step down.

Sitting across the table from the Georgian leader at that meeting were three politicians whom Shevardnadze had done more than anyone to create.

The most senior of the trio was Zurab Zhvania. A short, thick-set man with receding hair, until two years ago he was Shevardnadze's closest political associate and the man seen as heir apparent to the president.

He was a leading light in the Citizens' Union of Georgia, the governing bloc. As speaker of parliament until he quit at the end of 2001, he was widely regarded as Georgia's second most influential politician. Now he is in opposition, as joint leader of the Burdzhanadze-Democrats bloc.

Sitting alongside him in the president's Krtsanisi residence on Sunday was Nino Burdzhanadze, the elegant 39-year-old mother-of-two with jet black hair who replaced Zhvania as speaker of parliament.

Her ties to Shevardnadze are even closer. Her father rose up through the Georgian Communist Party ranks with Shevardnadze and was for many years head of the state bread monopoly. The two families were close.

Under Shevardnadze's tutelage, Burdzhanadze entered politics, also in the pro-government bloc. At the same time, her husband was appointed first deputy prosecutor-general.

She quit as speaker six months ago, and with Zhvania set up her own opposition party. With Shevardnadze's resignation, she has taken over from him as caretaker head of state.

The third figure facing Shevardnadze across the negotiating table was his former protege Mikhail Saakashvili. After studying at Columbia University law school and working for a firm of New York lawyers, the 35-year-old returned home.

Saakashvili became a rising star in the Citizens' Union. He was elected to parliament and in 2000, Shevardnadze appointed him justice minister. But soon after he resigned and set up the National Movement opposition party.

He became Shevardnadze's most vocal opponent and was the driving force behind the protests which led to his resignation. Saakashvili is tipped as the man most likely to win presidential elections, now due to be held within the next 45 days.

Each of the three had their different reasons for falling out with Shevardnadze. Zhvania quit because he felt the president was out of touch with the mood of the people. Burdzhanadze's break with him came when he harangued her for not pushing his program through parliament fast enough.

Saakashvili stormed out of government when Shevardnadze failed to back him in a crusade to expose official corruption.

But the common thread is that all three are pro-western, liberal economic reformers. Shevardnadze used to be a kindred spirit and they shared with him the same aspirations for Georgia. But in the past three years, say observers, Shevardnadze has changed. He drifted closer to Russia and away from the US, he dragged his feet on economic reform and his inner circle became dominated by conservatives.

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