- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

TBILISI, Georgia — The country’s interim president yesterday announced new presidential elections to be held in early January, virtually assuring the accession of the hero of the weekend’s “velvet revolution,” Mikhail Saakashvili.

At the same time, Nino Burdzhanadze moved to consolidate her control as acting president — which gives her limited powers over some 3,000 presidentially appointed positions — and to shore up security in the country.

Last night, she received the resignation of the minister of the interior, the most important figure to remain loyal to ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, whose detested regime had always relied on the police as its central pillar of power.

Mrs. Burdzhanadze is not able to fire ministers, but leaving Koba Narchemashvili in charge of the police would have been anathema to the country’s new leaders, who charge that the police were deeply complicit in the massive fraud that marred the Nov. 2 parliamentary elections, triggering nearly continuous demonstrations.

In announcing his resignation, Mr. Narchemashvili said he was hoping to avoid confrontations with the George Soros-funded youth activist group Kmara (Enough), which had threatened to storm the Interior Ministry building.

It is unclear just how aggressively the interim president and her key allies will try to move against other high officials accused of election fraud or other criminal activity.

One opposition source said there were roughly 30 people who could face prosecution for egregious corruption and violent crimes, some of whom have already fled Georgian jurisdiction.

In a Tbilisi interview, Mr. Shevardnadze, 75, told Reuters news agency that he stepped down Sunday after his son phoned him from Paris. “Love me or not, respect me or not, those people are all my children,” he said, explaining his choice not to use force.

Although Mr. Shevardnadze is said not to have soiled himself directly in corruption, his immediate family and a thick web of relatives are widely reported to have been the most corrupt — and the wealthiest — clan in the country, with extensive property holdings and businesses ranging from oil to mobile phones.

Mr. Saakashvili, 35, who served as Mr. Shevardnadze’s justice minister, fell out with his boss over the latter’s protection from legal prosecution of people close to him.

By vowing to hold presidential elections in 45 days, to be followed by parliamentary elections in the spring, Mrs. Burdzhanadze, a lawyer, is following the letter of the country’s constitution.

But by doing so she virtually ensures that Mr. Saakashvili will ride the tremendous wave of support he earned over the weekend into the presidency, a position she is believed to also covet.

“Misha is a real hero and the only question now is whether anyone serious will run against him,” said a Western electoral expert based in Tbilisi, referring to Mr. Saakashvili by his nickname.

“We are hoping [Mrs. Burdzhanadze] will not run. He would win anyway, but it’s better for the country if he runs uncontested.”

Mr. Saakashvili was the prime mover behind the weekend’s revolt in which tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounded key government buildings, eventually forcing Mr. Shevardnadze’s resignation.

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