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Georgia’s velvet revolution

Georgia’s veteran President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned on Sunday to scenes of wild jubilation in the streets of Tbilisi, as the man who helped end the Cold War was forced to step down after weeks of angry protests.

He handed over power to former Parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze in a dramatic climax to mounting popular unrest after an allegedly rigged November 2 parliamentary poll that tapped into widespread dissatisfaction with his rule.

As thousands of protesters shouted, cheered and danced and cars honked their horns in a deafening barrage to celebrate the news, Shevardnadze announced he was bowing to popular will.

”I am leaving,” he said in televised comments after meeting with the leaders of the opposition in this former Soviet republic.

”I have never betrayed my people and that’s why I think that as president, I should submit my resignation,” Shevardnadze said.

The capital of the tiny Caucasus nation erupted into joy to the news, Tbilisi’s main boulevard soon jammed with honking cars bursting with people shouting for joy — in trunks, on hoods, on roofs, hanging out of windows.

”Today is a celebration,” said Tristan, a demonstrator. ”It is our first day without Shevardnadze for 30 years.”

Inside his residence outside Tbilisi where he had agreed to resign after meeting the opposition leaders along with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the man who dominated Georgia’s political scene for years cut a lonely figure.

Asked by reporters to whom he was handing over power, the 75-year-old Shevardnadze, once the darling of the West, replied: ”That is no longer any of my concern.”

Outside Parliament, there were chaotic scenes as a surging crowd chanted ”He has gone”, ”He has gone”, waving the red and white flags of the opposition.

Thousands of demonstrators roared with approval as opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, who orchestrated the protests, told them their grandchildren would remember the day they toppled Shevardnadze.

”Let us be proud of our country, your children, grandchildren will be very proud of this very important day in the history of Georgia. The revolution has happened, without casualties, without bloodshed,” the 35-year-old US-educated lawyer said.

Fresh presidential elections in Georgia are to be held within the next 45 days under the Georgian constitution, interim President Burjanadze said in an interview with CNN.

In an address to the nation she read inside the Parliament building early on Monday, Burjanadze urged those who had gone on strike to protest against Shevardnadze to resume their work now that the former leader had stepped down.

Saakashvili said Burjanadze did not intend to immediately fire Georgia’s Shevardnadze-appointed government, as the Constitution did not allow her to do so.

”As acting president, Nino Burdjanadze does not have the right to do this under the constitution, and I do not think she will do it,” Saakashvili said.

US State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said late on Sunday that the US was looking forward to working with Burjanadze ”in her effort to maintain the integrity of Georgia’s democracy” and that Washington and the international community ”stand ready to support the new government in holding free and fair parliamentary elections in the future as required by the Constitution.”

The assurances came after US Secretary of State Colin Powell called Burjanadze to express US support, Boucher added.

Burjanadze’s press office in Tbilisi confirmed the telephone conversation, saying in a statement that Powell had expressed his satisfaction that ”Georgia’s problems had been solved in a peaceful manner and according to the constitution”.

Shevardnadze, who was forced to flee to his residence outside Tbilisi on Saturday after angry protesters stormed the parliament, had sought to defuse the crisis on Sunday by promising talks on new parliamentary and presidential elections.

But Saakashvili said the country’s army and security forces had already abandoned Shevardnadze, who was due to end his second term in 2005, and called on him to step down immediately and go into exile.

The opposition has charged that the parliamentary elections which returned Shevardnadze’s government to power were rigged, and alleged that the president had allowed corruption to flourish unchecked.

The European Union and the Russian and US governments coordinated international efforts to end the political crisis in Georgia peacefully, as the Russian foreign minister shuttled between Shevardnadze and the opposition on Sunday.

Georgia, which is of vital strategic interest to the West as a transit route for oil from the new fields of the Caspian Sea, was wracked by civil war fought out on the cobbled streets of Tbilisi more than a decade ago.

But the demonstrations this time were peaceful, giving rise to comparisons with the ”velvet revolution” which saw the peaceful overthrow of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989. – Sapa-AFP

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