- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

TBILISI, Georgia — President Eduard Shevardnadze, long acclaimed in the West for his pivotal role as Soviet foreign minister in ending the Cold War peacefully, bowed yesterday to a “velvet revolution” in his own homeland that was mounted this weekend by tens of thousands of resolute Georgians who had enough of his corruption-ridden rule.

Massive street demonstrations, backed by spreading defections of key security units, compelled Mr. Shevardnadze’s resignation, which came yesterday evening after a meeting at his residence with two opposition leaders.

The deal, which provides for the security of Mr. Shevardnadze and his family and does not require exile, was brokered by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who arrived from Moscow yesterday morning.

The United States late yesterday welcomed the new government in Georgia with an offer of support for the interim president and recognition of the “difficult” decision by Mr. Shevardnadze to resign and restore stability.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the people of Georgia had heard the call of opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili to move to a new stage in Georgian politics and that the United States was committed to helping them emerge from their political crisis.

Defiant until the end — including a declaration on Saturday of a state of emergency and pledges to forcibly restore order — Mr. Shevardnadze, a dominant figure here for most of the past 30 years who had become increasingly out of touch with the Georgian public, still met an ignominious end.

“I see that this can not simply go on,” the weary-looking president said on television shortly after signing his resignation papers. “If I was forced tomorrow to use my authority, it would lead to a lot of bloodshed [and] I have never betrayed my country and so it is better that the president resigns.”

It is not clear though whether, at this point, the president really had effective authority over any security units after official loyalties appeared to leach away quickly by the contagion of spirited street protests.

By late afternoon, Mr. Saakashvili announced that all major units of the police had switched loyalty to the opposition — leaving the president with only his personal bodyguards to rely on.

Mr. Shevardnadze was forced to seek shelter in his residence after being whisked away from the parliament building on Saturday afternoon by heavily armed bodyguards after the opposition surged into the assembly, undeterred by other security forces who had ringed the building for days.

Facing presidential intransigence late Sunday, the opposition threatened next to storm the presidential residence on the outskirts of the capital, if he did not resign.

Although there were rumors — if not hopes — that Mr. Shevardnadze was leaving the country, his spokesman told reporters that he was with his family at his residence and had no intention of leaving — “at least tonight.”

It was not clear whether the deal involving the handing over of power included immunity from any future prosecution and how widely this might extend.

Although Mr. Shevardnadze generally is not considered corrupt himself — he always has been more interested in power — his rule has enriched many members of his extended family, critics say.

Pervasive corruption — and the bad governance it begets — is the most widespread complaint against Mr. Shevardnadze’s rule, especially in recent years.

This combination has sent the country’s once solidly middle-class existence descending into increasingly Third World conditions.

More than half the country lives in poverty, and even in the proud capital, people have to make do with abysmal infrastructure, including regular interruptions of electricity, heat and water.

State salaries and even meager pensions, of seven dollars a month, are often not paid for months, while the president’s relatives and coterie of others he depends on to remain in power have become fantastically wealthy.

Although disgraced now, Mr. Shevardnadze also was a heroic figure for Georgians, particularly for the critical — and brave — role he played in ending the civil war that the country plunged into soon after winning independence in 1991.

He later went on to win election as president in 1995 and then again in 2000. In his first term, he undertook ambitious reforms, which attracted many of the country’s best talent, but he seemed to have lost faith in those democratizing moves sometime around 1999, say critics.

“Today is the greatest day in the history of Georgia, this is the day of the birth of a new Georgia,” shouted Mr. Saakashvili, the 35-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer who has emerged as the most charismatic of the three key opposition leaders, late yesterday evening before ten of thousands in front of the parliament building.

Mr. Saakashvili, who was only five when Mr. Shevardnadze became Communist Party chief, once served as Mr. Shevardnadze’s minister of justice but fell out of favor when he went public with pictures of huge villas that other Cabinet members had constructed around the capital, which they could not possibly have paid for with their modest state salaries.

Mr. Saakashvili has been the principal organizer of near-continuous street protests that erupted in the wake of the massive fraud in Nov. 2 elections — documented by local and international observers — that robbed the opposition of a narrow majority in parliament.

By resigning, Mr. Shevardnadze handed over powers of interim president to the parliament speaker, Nino Burjananadze, a quiet-spoken 39-year-old lawyer and mother of two.

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