- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

TBILISI, Georgia — This month’s parliamentary election was supposed to have been a dry run for Georgia’s next presidential vote, testing the strength of candidates who could replace President Eduard Shevardnadze when his term expires.

Instead, it became a referendum on Mr. Shevardnadze himself and sparked this former Soviet republic’s biggest political crisis in years.

Mr. Shevardnadze — who has refused demands from protesters that he step down — called Russian leader Vladimir Putin yesterday to consult about the escalating standoff. It was their second conversation in as many days, a further sign of Mr. Shevardnadze’s efforts to shore up support from neighboring countries.

Georgia has been seized by tension since the Nov. 2 vote, criticized as fraudulent by the nation’s opposition leaders and by the United States and international observers.

Thousands of people protested all week outside the parliament building in the capital, Tbilisi, reaching a peak of 15,000 on Friday. Clusters of protesters stood by the barricades at night, wrapping themselves in Georgia’s red-and-white flag and warming themselves with bonfires.

Yesterday, a small gathering of demonstrators was outside the parliament in harsh wind and freezing rain, despite calls by protest leaders for them to take a break until tomorrow.

Though the president has said he feared the social unrest could erupt into civil war, he was more optimistic yesterday. “The president informed his Russian colleague that the opposition has enough self-control not to take any steps that would lead to radical difficulties,” a Shevardnadze spokesman said.

In talking with Mr. Putin, Mr. Shevardnadze also reaffirmed his interest in resolving the standoff through dialogue, noting this method was “not exhausted.”

Yet talks with the opposition last Sunday were unsuccessful, and charismatic protest leader Mikhail Saakashvili, of the National Movement party, has hardened his insistence that there is no other solution but for the president to resign.

Mr. Shevardnadze, 75, whose term ends in two years, is far more popular abroad than at home, where the one-time reformist Soviet foreign minister has dominated the political landscape for the past quarter-century.

He has presided over Georgia for most of its independence after the 1991 Soviet collapse but failed to stop the country of 4.4 million from tumbling into a morass of economic misery, corruption and crime.

The yawning gap between the haves and have-nots is apparent throughout the rundown capital. Unemployed workers pace the streets as officials whiz by in fancy cars supposedly bought with modest state salaries.

The contrast has long caused aggravation. Now, after Mr. Shevardnadze’s claim that the Nov. 2 election was “the most democratic and fair,” frustration has exploded into rage.

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