Tensions rise in Georgia over vote results

Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze is trying to outlast continuous street demonstrations calling for his resignation, as opponents vow a hunger strike to protest disputed parliamentary election results.

Georgia's central election commission has ordered a new round of voting to be held in at least 16 of 85 parliamentary districts over the next two weeks, in a bid to ease concerns about the Nov. 2 vote, which European election monitors declared had "spectacular" irregularities.

Shevardnadze accused opposition leaders Monday of trying to engineer a coup. Officials said Tuesday that he plans to meet with opposition leaders in the capital, Tbilisi, for a second time to try to resolve the issue.

Thousands of Georgians - irate at their deeply unpopular president and frustrated by widespread government corruption and alleged vote rigging - have gathered for a fourth straight day outside the parliament building, braving soaking rains to demand change.

"Georgia is as at a revolutionary moment, and an incident could spark something that [Shevardnadze] can't contain," says Fiona Hill, a senior fellow and expert on Eurasia at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The standoff is the latest crisis in post-Soviet Georgia, a Caucasus nation at the southwestern underbelly of today's Russia. It is key to American and Western strategic plans, as a transit country for an oil pipeline now under construction that will carry Caspian oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

Though armed thugs have broken up one opposition rally with shooting in recent days - and protesters complained of attempts by other armed men to intimidate them overnight in Tbilisi - preventing violence may be Shevardnadze's priority.

"Violence is the last thing he wants, because it then becomes a free-for-all, and shooting down Rustaveli Prospekt [the main street in Tbilisi]," says Ms. Hill. "You could have the equivalent of the storming of the Bastille .... Shevardnadze knows this. The question is: How long can he wait it out?"

The interior ministry said it had boosted troops around key buildings and would react "appropriately" if demonstrators changed their so far peaceful tactics.

Even as opposition chief Mikhail Saakashvili vowed that supporters would start a hunger strike late Monday, analysts said the lack of an opposition strategy was starting to show.

"Everybody thought that something would come out of this, but the opposition didn't look like they had a clear strategy, and now it looks like they don't even have an exit strategy," says George Khutsishvili, head of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation, an influential civic organization in Tbilisi.

"There are very little chances now for the opposition to consolidate power - time is working against them," Mr. Khutsishvili says. The ultimatums that Shevardnadze step down have weakened Mr. Saakashvili's position, deepened divisions within the opposition, and frightened some Georgians who fear a plunge back into the chaos of a decade ago, Khutsishvili says.

"There was an expectation from the people that they would choose a slogan and stay on a rational, achievable path," he says of the opposition. "But [Saakashvili's] psychology was different. His style is to seek the maximum. He really acted like he was leader of a larger power than he could really count on."

Shevardnadze - who was shouted down as he waded into the crowds Sunday morning - went on the offensive Monday. He felt secure enough to travel to western Georgia, where he was greeted by a crowd estimated by wire reports to be 25,000 strong.

"The demagoguery must stop," said Shevardnadze, who has been dismissive of the opposition as "dozens" of flag-wavers, and vowed that he can draw 10 times more supporters onto the streets than the opposition can.

Preliminary results from the election showed the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia party winning almost 22 percent of the vote. The election is seen as a dress rehearsal for the presidential vote in 2005, when Shevardnadze is due to retire after serving two terms. But some in Georgia have worried that he will try to impose a successor or attempt a third term.

The decade of Shevardnadze's rule brought Georgia out of civil war and introduced a period of calm. As Soviet foreign minister under Gorbachev, he helped ensure that the Soviet Union ended peacefully in the late 1980s. But critics say he has now darkened Georgia's future with undemocratic and corrupt practices. But ever since the violence of a decade ago, which led to the fall of Shevardnadze's predecessor, Georgians have feared taking to the streets.

"Shevardnadze hopes that people will just get tired, or that they will in desperation do something stupid, so he will have a pretext to make a real crackdown," says Ghia Nodia, who heads the Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi.

While Shevardnadze has hawks in the government who are insisting on a crackdown, the hard-line view is not limited to the regime. "I don't see civil-war type, long-term organized violence," says Nodia. "But you can imagine an exasperated opposition, who have radicals of their own."

Shevardnadze has appeared calm when facing down his opponents. "When he started in power, he had to squash a lot of paramilitaries and put a lot of people in jail. But he wasn't really able to monopolize firepower on the part of the government," says Hill, adding that many such groups still exist. "Nobody can ever rule out Shevardnadze," she says. "That guy has come back from death many times, politically and physically."

The president is not listening to protesters because "he has an old-style Soviet mentality - a Soviet functionary who doesn't respect people," Khutsishvili says. "Democracy can't be built with people like that."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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