Tens of thousands of political protesters thronged the streets of this Caucasus nation’s capital in jubilation Sunday after President Eduard Shevardnadze announced that he had quit.
Bowing to the 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 on television. 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 had 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 the 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 our 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.”
His 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, surrounded by “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,” says 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.”
Nino Burjanadze, an opposition leader and former parliamentary speaker, on the other hand, is widely seen as more moderate. But the good-cop, bad-cop opposition front may not survive the next phase of the conflict.
“The fact that they [the opposition] couldn’t unite before the election,” says Brenda Shaffer, head of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “means that if they get the keys to parliament and to the president’s house, I’m not sure they’re going to be able to keep running together.”
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had flown to Georgia overnight Saturday but announced Sunday, shortly before the resignation, that his mission was over.
Both government and opposition sides had played hardball. Shevardnadze, with two assassination attempts, four regional uprisings and a breakaway republic under his belt, has a reputation as a master of brinksmanship.
Shevardnadze has long been feted in the West, as the Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped craft the peaceful end to the Soviet empire. Washington alone – hedging against Russia’s own historical interest in its small southern neighbor – has sunk more than $1 billion into Georgia during Shevardnadze’s decade-long rule.
As an independent nation, Georgia has become an ally of the US in its war on terror. American troops have been training Georgian units to battle Chechen rebels they say have links to Al Qaeda in the lawless Pankisi Gorge along the Russia’s Chechen border to the north. But US officials have been critical of Shevardnadze’s handling of the election, and had urged compromise talks.
Protests began soon after parliamentary elections on Nov. 2, when the opposition cried foul over vote rigging and blatant attempts to steal the result. European vote monitors said the election showed “spectacular irregularities.”
Street marches grew, as opposition leaders – themselves a mixed group, who couldn’t form a united front before the election – vowed not to recognize the new parliament, and demanded that Shevardnadze resign.
When Mr. Saakashvili led the charge into parliament, the crowd breaking down the tall wooden doors and sending deputies racing for safety, he pointed at the white-haired Shevardnadze on the podium and shouted: “Resign! Resign!”
Ms. Burjanadze assumed presidential powers on Saturday. She vowed that new elections would be held in 45 days.
Along with the special forces troops at the parliament Sunday, police officers, too, were inside the courtyard after dark, stating that Shevardnadze’s power would be “finished” within a few hours.
While the chance of violence may have eased yesterday, the weight of the opposition’s challenge began to be felt.
As events unfolded before the resignation, Mr. Lieven said: “Always on these occasions, one gets into optimistic mode. But we mustn’t make the same mistake with the Georgian opposition that we made about Georgia itself, [dividing it into] goodies and baddies, and cowboys and Indians.
“All these people come from a particular Georgian political culture, which so far has thrown up one catastrophe after another,” Lieven says, noting that “family, clan, blood relations and patronage” are part of the system, and any government is “bound to reward its followers, its family.
“If they win, I hope this lot will be different,” he concludes. “There are degrees; you don’t have to do it as kleptocratically as Shevardnadze. But that is the cultural expectation.”