Peaceful protest topples Georgia's president
Besieged by thousands of protesters, Shevardnadze resigned Sunday.
Tens of thousands of Georgians thronged the streets of this Caucasus nation's capital in jubilation Sunday after President Eduard Shevardnadze announced that he had quit.Skip to next paragraph
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Bowing to protesters who had stormed parliament declaring a "velvet revolution" or "revolution of the roses" and demanding that he leave, Mr. Shevardnadze signed a resignation letter. "I am going home," he told the nation in a televised statement. When asked who would be the next president of Georgia, he said: "It is not my business."
A former Soviet republic that aspires to join NATO and the European Union, Georgia has been in political turmoil for three weeks, following an allegedly fraudulent parliamentary vote.
Sunday, the protesters kept up the call for Shevardnadze's departure, taking advantage of sunny weather to both join the demonstrations and celebrate St. George's Day, honoring the patron saint of Georgia, who is often depicted slaying a dragon with a spear.
Surgeon Nukzar Iarajuli couldn't stop smiling as he stood on the steps of parliament, while his 9-year-old daughter Nino waved an opposition flag. "Today is St. George's Day, so it was a message from the Lord to come here, to defend the strength of the opposition," he says. "St. George has a spear in his hand, and we need a spear to force Shevardnadze down. We bring our children, too, and want to live like you do in America."
Shevardnadze's resignation occurred amid signs that some of the security forces were moving over to the opposition side. Stern-faced troops stood inside the parliament courtyard, while throngs of protesters and their families waved flags, chanted, and lit candles outside the gates. "If only one bullet comes from Shevardnadze's people, that will be the end of him," brigade commander Lt. Col. Ghia Chomania said matter-of-factly. "You can see that all of Georgia is here," the colonel said, nodding his thick neck toward the gate. "I don't think any soldier is left at Shevardnadze's side."
Among the soldiers - and perhaps forming the bulwark to prevent a civil war here - were 120 special forces soldiers of the interior ministry who sided with the opposition against Shevardnadze.
The unit at the parliament was one of several that declared their allegiance to the opposition Sunday; Col. Chomania said that "all troops" think the same way, and that with "one phone call," he could retrieve the other 1,000 men "within half an hour."
Opposition chiefs had vowed to conduct a "velvet revolution," similar to the bloodless coup that ended communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989. But Sunday the enormity of the task ahead - and the dangers of violence and possible civil war that still exist - weighed heavily.
"What people forget is that still, today, Shevardnadze has been leader of Georgia much longer as a communist, than as a so-called democrat or independent president," said Anatol Lieven, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington who witnessed the civil war and turmoil in Georgia in the early 1990s. "This man's whole grip was formed by the communist dictatorship. So the question is: Can [opposition leader Mikhail] Saakashvili put the state back together again?"
The youthful, US-educated Saakashvili, a former justice minister, is frequently referred to by analysts as a "hothead" who walked out of negotiations with the president, and perhaps has not thought through a workable strategy for the opposition. Shevardnadze calls him a "dangerous phenomenon."