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Georgia on the Brink

Supporters of the president and the opposition face off in Tiblisi on the eve of new parliament's first session.
By Revaz Sakevarishvili

President Eduard Shevardnadze and opposition parties were on a collision course as IWPR went to press, after the latter refused to accept the newly-published official results of the parliamentary elections.


The president called the first session of parliament for November 22, even though the opposition is threatening to boycott the new assembly. A new speaker is due to be elected at this sitting.


The capital is bracing itself for trouble on the eve of the session, as pro- and anti-authority groups face off outside the parliament building.


Several thousand supporters of Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze - who has forged an unexpected alliance with Shevardnadze - have been brought in specially from Batumi, and are surrounding the assembly.


Meanwhile, opposition leader Mikael Saakashvili has arrived in the capital at the head of a mass protest convoy which originated in western Georgia, where he has strongest support.


The head of the Security Council Tedo Japaridze made his first intervention in the crisis with unexpectedly strong words about the president. He warned of the risk of bloodshed, "Responsibility lies equally on opposition and the governing regime."


Japaridze said there was a solution, namely that the newly-elected parliament starts working and fresh parliamentary elections declared very soon.


Georgia's Central Electoral Commission, CEC, announced the election results, as it is required to do so, 18 days after polling day on November 2, meeting the deadline by just one hour.


The pro-government party For a New Georgia came first, followed by Abashidze's Revival block and Saakashvili's National Movement. They won 21.32, 18.84 and 18.08 per cent of the votes, which translated into 38, 33 and 32 seats respectively.


Three other parties were declared to have passed the seven-per-cent barrier giving them representation in parliament. They are the left-wing Labour Party, the Burjanadze-Democrat bloc led by two former speakers of parliament Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania and the moderate pro-Shevardnadze New Rights party. They won 12.04, 8.79 and 7.35 per cent of the votes, which translated into 20, 15 and 12 seats respectively.


The head of the CEC Nana Devdariani said, "This was the only decision and the only one that was correct politically." However five members of the 15-member commission did not sign the final protocol approving the election.


"There is a lot of time before the presidential elections of 2005 and the CEC will work on the details of the electoral lists," Devdariani said. "Now it is more important that the country changed to a new rhythm and mutual acccusations stopped. The commission has done all it can in this situation."


The dissenters are angry that the CEC apparently did not take into account several hundred court cases opened on grounds of mass falsification and widespread accounts of vote-rigging. "We presented 1200 pages of material about infringements in the election," Zurab Chiberashvili, executive director of the Fair Elections organisation which monitored the ballot. "But the results that were finally confirmed prove that the CEC took absolutely no account of the information collected by our 5,000 monitors."


"It is as though the CEC and its chairwoman Nana Devdariani just didn't see the information we gave them about vote-rigging," complained Tinan Khidasheli of the Association of Young Lawyers. "Otherwise neither the chairwoman of the commission nor any people who has a shred of decency could not say that the final results of the election are objective and reflect the real picture."


They received unexpectedly strong support from the US State Department, whose spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters on November 20, "What I can say now is that we are deeply disappointed in these results and in Georgia's leadership.


"The results do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people but instead reflect massive vote fraud in Ajaria and other Georgian regions."


After more than two weeks of street rallies and meetings, the opposition is now upping the stakes in its showdown with Shevardnadze. Saakashvili told his supporters that he would "not allow the parliament appointed by Shevardnadze to meet and begin work". Zurab Zhvania, his more moderate ally, said virtually the same thing. If less than 157 deputies attend the parliamentary session it will not have a quorum.


The opposition has moved its protests to western Georgia, leaving the capital to pro-government supporters. In a one-off act of theatrical protest, around 30 students from Tbilisi's Art Academy staged a demonstration in front of the mayor's office, wrapping themselves in cellophane bags and saying they were demonstrating against the "communist mentality" of the governing regime.


The situation became even more tense on November 20 when rumours circulated that Abashize was due to attend the first session of parliament and would be a likely candidate for speaker. The speaker of parliament is second in line to the president. The information has not been officially confirmed but many are convinced that it is going to happen. "This is a fact and the recent visits by Abashize to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia tell us that Shevardnadze is considering handing over power to Abashidze," said Leven Berdzanishvili, a political analyst sympathetic to the opposition.


Other forces are waiting on the sidelines to consider what to do next. Labour Party leader Shalva Natelashvili announced that his party was deprived of votes by the CEC at the expense of other parties and he is also considering boycotting the next session of parliament.


Pro-government spokeswoman Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, who formerly had a reforming reputation, hinted at splits in the wide coalition that had supported Shevardnadze in the elections.


A number of government officials, including the culture minister and head of state television, have resigned over the last few days. As has the deputy chief prosecutor, Badri Bitsadze, who warned in public that the prosecutor's office was coming under enormous pressure to open a series of criminal cases against the leaders of the opposition.


Revaz Sakevarishvili is a correspodent for Rustavi-2 Television.


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