Parliament Takeover Prompts Georgia Crisis
By MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI
TBILISI, Georgia (AP) - The opposition seized Georgia's parliament Saturday, chasing out President Eduard Shevardnadze and declaring an interim government as tens of thousands of supporters thronged the streets of the capital. Shevardnadze, backed by his head of police, declared a state of emergency.
Facing a possible confrontation with the army and security forces, the opposition appealed to its supporters in the streets to defend the parliament building.
Opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze, the speaker of the outgoing parliament, proclaimed herself acting president until early elections that the opposition called to take place in 45 days. She warned Shevardnadze's government to avoid bloodshed.
``The fate of our country is being decided now,'' said protest leader Mikhail Saakashvili. ``We give guarantees to Shevardnadze that he will not be harmed, but let him know that if there is at least one shot fired at people, he will face justice.''
The parliament takeover was an exuberant moment for protesters who for days have been demanding the president's removal over elections that the opposition says were rigged. Just as Shevardnadze began speaking in parliament, Saakashvili and hundreds of supporters swarmed through the chamber doors, pushing and shoving lawmakers.
The protesters knocked over tables and chairs. One leaped up on the speaker's podium, waving a red rose, while another banged the gavel. Later, protesters took over Shevardnadze's office and burned his chair.
Pro-government lawmakers were thrown out of parliament - and Shevardnadze was hustled out of the chamber by bodyguards. ``I will not resign,'' he vowed outside the building as he boarded a vehicle and was driven off, escorted by troops in riot gear.
He later went on national television, surrounded by uniformed officers of the internal security forces and declaring a 30-day state of emergency. ``Order will be restored and the criminals will be punished,'' he vowed.
While the interior minister - who is in charge of police - vowed loyalty, the military did not make clear its stance.
This poverty-stricken ex-Soviet republic slid into its biggest political crisis in years after the Nov. 2 parliamentary elections, which the United States criticized for ``massive fraud'' after it showed a victor for pro-Shevardnadze parties.
Georgia, a country of nearly 5 million people strategically located on the Black Sea neighboring Russia and Turkey, lies on the path of an important pipeline to ship oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey beginning in 2005. U.S. troops are in Georgia training its troop against Islamic extremists who have used Georgia as a jumping-off point for attacks in neighboring Chechnya.
The roots of the turmoil lie in the deep economic misery of most of the population and the rampant corruption that has characterized Shevardnadze's 10-year reign. Respected outside of Georgia for his role in helping to end the Cold War as foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev, the 75-year-old Shevardnadze is considered a disappointing relic at home.
The United States, which Shevardnadze has tried to court for closer ties, took a neutral stance, urging all sides to ``refrain from the use of force or violence.''
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington calls for a ``dialogue with a view to restoring calm and reaching a compromise solution acceptable to all.''
Russia, which remains a key power in the region, dispatched Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Tbilisi, the Kremlin said.
Shevardnadze's office called the opposition's actions an ``armed state coup.''
``I can step down only within the framework of the constitution,'' Shevardnadze said. ``It will depend on the parliament and the population, but everything has to happen within the constitutional framework.''
In his television appearance, he sat on a bench outdoors at a government residence on the outskirts of Tbilisi, with the interior minister - in charge of police and internal security - and officers around him. The state of emergency he signed gave the interior and defense ministries the task of restoring order.
Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili said that he would obey all the president's orders.
Saturday had been seen as a decisive day, because Shevardnadze had said that he would open the parliament no matter what and the opposition vowed to prevent that.
All morning, with the president due to open parliament, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Tbilisi, waving flags and chanting ``Leave'' and ``Enough.'' Protesters kicked effigies of the president.
After protesters took over the parliament chamber, Saakashvili exulted, ``The 'Velvet Revolution' has taken place in Georgia'' - a reference to the practically bloodless 1989 uprising that ousted the Communists from Czechoslovakia.
Shevardnadze has long claimed that he is key to maintaining stability in the turbulent nation, which has been riven by a civil war and the secession of two provinces since the 1991 Soviet collapse. He has carefully cultivated Western support and interest in his nation, which lies in the energy-rich Caspian region.
With protests building over the past two weeks, Shevardnadze's grip on the government seemed to be loosening. Even his top security aide acknowledged the election had been fraudulent.
Some armored personnel carriers were shown on Georgian television taking up positions in front of Shevardnadze's residence, but authorities emphasized that they were not going to be used against the demonstrators.
``I am appealing to all police officers not to let Shevardnadze spill blood,'' Saakashvili said in televised comments. ``There are your brothers and sisters here.''
Before the parliament session, Shevardnadze appeared to soften his position Saturday. He acknowledged that there had been some breaches in the election, which the pro-Shevardnadze party won according to official results.
``About 8 percent to 10 percent of the ballots were invalid,'' he said, but added that this should be dealt with in the courts.
According to final results, the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia bloc came in first with 21 percent of the vote, while the Revival party, which sided with Shevardnadze in the present crisis, finished second with nearly 19 percent.
Saakashvili's National Movement came in a very close third with 18 percent of the vote, while the Democrats who allied with Saakashvili got 8.8 percent.
SHEVARDNADZE’S NEW BEDFELLOWS
Part of Shevardnadze’s battle plan has been to seek support from an old rival, the head of the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze.
His visit to the Ajarian capital, Batumi, on 10 November, roused fears among the opposition that he is seeking a deal with Abashidze. They worry that Shevardnadze might promise to hand over the reins of power to Abashidze in 2005, in the same way that his Azeri counterpart Heidar Aliev did this year. Aliev’s son Ilham was elected to the presidency on 15 October in polls seen as deeply undemocratic.
An autocratic figure who refused to allow observers in to monitor his 95-percent “victory” on 2 November, Abashidze is pro-Russian in his policy and the presence of a Russian military base in Batumi has bolstered his very independent relationship with Tbilisi.
In the past seven days, Abashidze has visited Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia in an apparent effort to drum up support for Shevardnadze. He remains in Moscow.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has expressed support for Shevardnadze on several occasions, and Moscow has offered to lead an attempt to mediate in the political clash. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Loshchinin says that Russia "cannot be indifferent" to events in Georgia.
"The idea is that democratic forces [in Georgia] should listen to the voice of their nearest neighbors...and their worries and concern about what is happening in Georgia," Loshchinin said in a comment that suggests that the possible mediation effort would involve Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Shevardnadze’s turn towards Moscow is not adding to his popularity. Most Georgians believe that Russia’s policy since 1991 has been to weaken central authority in Georgia, and to extend its influence where possible. In the past six months, it has gained control of the country’s gas and electricity systems. It already supplied most of the country’s electricity, oil, and gas.
The deeper involvement of Russia in the crisis could also be cause for concern for Western governments, who are investing heavily in the construction of an oil pipeline that will run from Azerbaijan to Turkey, via Georgia. A gas pipeline could be built later.
In the summer, U.S. officials were critical of Tbilisi’s energy deals with Moscow, and high-profile U.S. delegations visited the country in the run-up to the elections. Since the vote, the U.S. State Department has urged the Georgian government and the Central Election Committee to rapidly resolve questions about the election and to prevent a delay in the announcement of final results.
Under the Georgian constitution, final figures should be released by 18 November. However, the chairwoman of the Central Election Committee, Nana Devdariani, has said she will not state the results until the courts rule on legal complaints about alleged fraud. Devdariani was given her post on the recommendation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The chairman of the OSCE, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has said that "the irregularities and delays in the voting process on polling day, and in the subsequent counting and tabulation process, reflected a lack of political will and administrative capacity for the conduct of free, fair and transparent elections."
SHIFTING THE BLAME?
Shevardnadze has also opened up a new political front, designed to convince the public that the opposition is causing the currency, the lari, to weaken, imports to fall, and the economy head towards a crisis.
However, the head of parliament’s Budgetary Office, Roman Gotsiridze, believes that economic problems long predated the elections--and that the authorities are to blame, for failing to collect taxes.
Just a few weeks before the elections, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cut their support to the state budget of Georgia, because of Tbilisi’s failure to deliver on promises that it had made.
Shevardnadze appears to be playing for time. However, the Georgian public--once used to some of the best living standards in the Soviet Union--has seen its living standards slip steadily since independence. Unemployment is rife, pensions and salaries frequently go unpaid, the country ranks as one of the most corrupt in the world, blackouts are common, and the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain unsettled. Judging by the latest protests, their patience may be closer to snapping than it has been for 12 years.
NRC Handelsblad -- 1 December 2003 - translated from Dutch
Moscow practices "liberal imperialism"
Russia is stirring in murky waters in the Caucasus - Georgia foremost. Unrest in former Soviet republics is a good opportunity to expand Russian influence.
By our correspondent
Coen van Zwol
Threatening sounds in Tblisi. Saturday a bomb explodes in the morning dusk at the head quearters of the Labour Party, a rival of the troika of opposition politicians which recently toppled president SHevardnadze. "There is no doubt that the junta of Saakashvili, Burdzhanadze and Zhvania has started a terror campaign against our party", the Labour Party submits.
Michail Saakashvili, the hot favourite for becoming the new president, warns the same day for a 'contra-revolution'. "We have information about the forming of certain armed brotherhoods." He is referring to Igor Georgadze, ex-chief of the secret services, which committed an assassination attempt against Shevardnadze in 1995. Georgadze agitated against the wicked Shevardnadfze regime from the safe Moscow. The present transfer of power in his eyes merely is an exchange of generations within the family branch.
While the oppositional troika is purging the Georgian government, the Russian press views the change of power mostly as an American coup. Washington had looked upon with sorrow as the weak and impopular Shevardnadze had gotten ever more dependent on energysupplier Russia and its local vassals - in particular the regional leader Aslan Abyazhidze, who, thanks to the presence of a Russian army base, can rule his southern enclave Adzharia almost autocratically. Washington invested 2.4 million dollar in the Georgian elections of 2 November. To guarantee honest proceedings, it claimed. In order to prove the unavoidable voting booth fraud by Shevardnadze afterwards, and then use that to subsequently topple him, Russian commentators are speculating. Shevardnadze himself today speaks of a "Soros plan": the American multimillionaire and benefactor was the evil genius behind his fall, he claimed. He praised Russia, which according to him had stabilised the explosive situation.
The role of the Russian minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov in the 'revolution of roses' was indeed striking. Moscow had seemed to back Shevardnadze, but once he arrived in Tblisi Ivanov had himself filmed with the opposition on the steps of the stormed parliament building, and negotiated in the process of forcing Shevardnadze to step down. "Ivanov smelled a corpse", says a Western diplomat in Tblisi. "He saw that the situation was hopeless and acted pragmatically. This way at least Russia shows itself a trustworthy partner."
The troika that is now in power in Tblisi has since then sounded off conciliatory notes towards Moscow. In Moscow, meanwhile, the fear is that Saaakashvili will speed up the pro-western course of Shevardnadze and steer an aggressive, nationalist course against the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia. With Saakashvili as president, the conservative Izvestia notes gloomily, a new war will be inevitable. Saakashvili in his turn denies that he is pro-American. "In Georgia they call me a Russian spy, in Moscow they call me a CIA-man", he says in the newspaper Kommersant. Saakashvili wants just to negotiate in a normal mode in the future, without the complexes that Shevardnadze nursed towards Moscow. "Because he drifted between passionate love and deep dread like an old woman."
In the meantime a "Shevardnadze-effect" flows through the former Soviet Union: his fall gives new hope to the opposition elsewhere. In the Ukraine the protest against president Kutchma is gaining in force again. In Moldava the opposition yesterday rallied 30,000 demonstrators against a Russian peace plan for Transdnistria.
Russia has recently used the weakness of neighbouring rulers to expand its economical influence on the former Soviet republics. "Liberal imperialism" is what the politician Chubais calls it. This way the Russian electricity monopoly UES acquired control over the Georgian electricity grid last summer, while Gazprom signed a contract for gas deliveries and innovation of the Georgian mains system. This economic expansion is put at risk if pro-Western, nationalist politicians get back into power.
And thus the Kremlin now fires some shots across the bows. Moscow kept the Georgian ambitions in check this past decade by supporting the regions that had split off from it - Abkhazia, South-Ossetia. When the tension rises, Russia stirs up separatism. Thus in 2001 it imposed visum requirements for Georgians, but not for Abkhazians and South-Ossetians [though neither of their countries is recognized by any world state]. The latter were also allowed last year to register as Russian citizens. Annexation of these regions is then only one step away for Russia.
Last Thursday Russia welcomed the leaders of the separated and near-separated enclaves in Moscow. "We will only talk of economic matters", said president Kokoity of South-Ossetia, but nobody believes that. The Russian Duma on Friday rejected a proposal of the ultra-nationalists to annex Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, but Prime Minister Kashanov emphasized that Russia will continue its "humanitariuan support" for these regions. Furthermore Russia now is considering to also free the southern region of Adzharia from visum requirements. "It is hard to say what is Georgia and what is not", submits potentate Abashidze of Adzharia. The new leaders in Tbilisi have been warned. If the Kremlin wants it, their country can still fall apart in chaos.
Remarks of Colin Powell on Georgia and Moldova to OSCE ministerial, Dec. 2
[..] I am delighted that we have been joined here in Maastricht by the acting President of Georgia.
[..] Last week, we witnessed the "Revolution of the Roses" in Georgia. Tens of thousands of citizens protested peacefully in the streets, demanding their democratic rights and a legitimate, representative government free of corruption. My government looks forward to working with the interim Georgian government to ensure that new elections take place in accordance with the constitution. The international community should do everything possible to support Georgia's territorial integrity throughout and beyond the election process. No support should be given to breakaway elements seeking to weaken Georgia's territorial integrity.
[..] In some OSCE regions, long-standing disputes have yet to be resolved. In the days prior to our meeting, many parties intensified their efforts to encourage a political settlement to the Transnistria problem.
[..] Whatever the current status of various mediation efforts, it is the people of Moldova who must ultimately choose the constitutional and other arrangements best suited for their country. The OSCE must stay fully engaged to ensure that the process of making that choice is democratic and transparent to the citizens of Moldova. OSCE also must play a vital role in creating a genuinely international stabilization force, which is essential to a lasting settlement. The internationally mandated force should be multilateral in character and limited in scope and duration.
I had hoped today to welcome Russia's fulfillment of its 1999 Istanbul commitments to completely withdraw its forces from Moldova. It appears that Russia will not meet the already extended December 31 deadline. This is a setback, though some progress has been made. I also urge Russia and Georgia to resolve the remaining issues relating to the Russian military presence in Georgia. I call once again for the earliest possible fulfillment of the Istanbul commitments on Moldova and Georgia. [..] The United States stands by the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Russia's fulfillment of the Istanbul commitments is a prerequisite for us to move forward on ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty, which all of us want to see enter into force.
This year, in a number of OSCE states in the Caucasus and elsewhere, key elections were seriously flawed. And today, in some member countries, human rights and democratic freedoms are under siege.
[..] Credible reports of abuses by government as well as rebel forces in Chechnya remind us that Russia must ensure respect for human rights even as it combats terrorism and upholds its territorial integrity.
Georgia: Soros, Stalin, And a Gallon of Wine
by Roman Bessonov
the Ukrainian intelligence Major Mykola Melnychenko, whose peddling of audiotapes of President Leonid Kuchma's private conversation launched a political crisis in Ukraine in 2001.
National Movement/United Democrats 152
New Right/Industrial Bloc 23
Independent candidates 20
Movement for a New Georgia 19
Seats for Abkhazia 10
Revival Union (Abashidze's Adzharian party) 6
Labor Party 4
That was an informative link--but, I've never seen so many complaining people.
Very useful link.