- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

TBILISI, Georgia — The opposition yesterday took over Georgia’s parliament, chasing out President Eduard Shevardnadze and declaring an interim government.

Tens of thousands thronged the streets to demand the resignation of the unpopular leader as Mr. Shevardnadze, backed by his head of police, declared a state of emergency.

Facing a confrontation with the army and security forces, the opposition appealed to supporters in this capital city to defend the parliament building.

Opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze, speaker of the outgoing parliament, proclaimed herself acting president until elections that the opposition called to take place in 45 days. Mrs. Burdzhanadze warned Mr. Shevardnadze’s government to avoid bloodshed.

“The fate of our country is being decided now,” protest leader Mikhail Saakashvili said. “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.”

Protesters said they were determined to topple the president, who long has claimed that his leadership is key to maintaining stability in the Caucasus region, located on vital oil routes.

Georgia’s mountains also provide shelter for insurgents fighting in neighboring Chechnya, and the United States has helped train Georgian military forces to try to uproot them.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a joint telephone call to Mr. Shevardnadze and urged restraint as he tries to maintain control, a State Department official said on the condition of anonymity.

The parliament takeover was an exuberant moment for protesters, who for days have demanded the president’s removal over elections that the opposition and international observers — including the United States — say were rigged.

Just as Mr. Shevardnadze began speaking in parliament, Mr. Saakashvili and hundreds of his 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 Mr. Shevardnadze’s office and burned his chair.

Pro-government lawmakers were thrown out of parliament. Mr. Shevardnadze, 75, was hustled out of the chamber by bodyguards.

“I will not resign,” Mr. Shevardnadze vowed outside the building as he boarded a vehicle and was driven off, escorted by troops in riot gear.

The president later went on national television, surrounded by uniformed officers of the internal security forces, and declared a 30-day state of emergency.

“Order will be restored and the criminals will be punished,” he said.

The United States, which Mr. Shevardnadze has courted for closer ties, urged 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.”

Georgia’s interior minister, who is in charge of police, vowed loyalty to the president, but 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.” The results showed a narrow victory for pro-Shevardnadze parties.

Georgia, a country of nearly 5 million 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.

The roots of the turmoil lie in the deep economic misery of most of the population and rampant corruption that has characterized Mr. Shevardnadze’s 10-year reign. He is unpopular at home although respected outside Georgia for his role in helping to end the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister under President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Russia, which remains a key power in the region, dispatched Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Tbilisi, the Kremlin said.

Mr. Shevardnadze’s office called the opposition’s actions an “armed state coup.”

“I can step down only within the framework of the constitution,” Mr. Shevardnadze said. “It will depend on the parliament and the population, but everything has to happen within the constitutional framework.”

In his television appearance, the president sat on a bench outside a government residence on the outskirts of Tbilisi, accompanied by Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili, in charge of police and internal security, and uniformed officers.

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