Shevardnadze Blocs Win Poll Protesters Start March

TBILISI (Reuters)–Opposition supporters began converging on the Georgian capital on Thursday to demand that President Eduard Shevardnadze step down after officials said his allies had won an election the opposition says was rigged. Protesters have paralyzed the nation since the November 2 poll–saying authorities stole victory from the opposition.

Now that official results have finally been announced–the protesters plan to block the first session of parliament–raising fears the unrest could turn violent. Local television showed people starting to travel to the capital and said supporters in the western town of Zugdidi had laid on mini-buses and cars. Earlier–the opposition said its deputies were heading elsewhere to persuade people to join.

In a country where most state workers take home $20 a month–the protests have struck a rich vein of dissatisfaction–leading to a wider call for Shevardnadze’s resignation. Numbers swelled to the biggest seen in Georgia in a decade on Friday. The veteran leader–75–has vowed not to give in to pressure from the streets and warned of civil war.

"This parliament is illegitimate. It is formed following Shevardnadze’s orders," Mikhail Saakashvili–leader of an opposition bloc placed third in the poll–told reporters before the results were officially announced.

"We are talking about…the transformation of a former democrat–former liberal–once darling-of-the-west President Shevardnadze into a trivial–post-Soviet dictator who ignored the will of his people."

The Central Election Commission said the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia! bloc won the poll with 21.32 percent–ahead of the newly allied Revival Union on 18.84 percent. Saakashvili’s opposition bloc won 18.08 percent.

Five opposition representatives on the commission walked out of the stormy session in protest. The commission’s head even admitted they had to make the best of a bad job. "Despite all the violations during the election–the mistakes–we did all we could do in our power," Nana Devdariani said.

UNPOPULAR AT HOME

Shevardnadze is still praised in the West for helping to end the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister–but is increasingly unpopular at home over plunging living standards–corruption and territory lost to separatists.

He had said he hoped releasing the results would be a step towards ending the protests. His spokesman’said the new parliament would convene on Saturday. But Saakashvili said his supporters would block the session.

Analysts have warned of violence if the marchers arrive en masse in the capital while a pro-presidential rally continues.

Hundreds of pro-presidential demonstrators were ferried to Tbilisi by bus earlier this week. More were arriving daily.

Western powers and neighbors have appealed to both sides to resolve the standoff peacefully to prevent a recurrence of the violence that shattered Georgia in the early 1990s. Further unrest would threaten a planned oil pipeline through Georgia from neighboring Azerbaijan to Turkey.

But analysts said it was becoming more apparent that Shevardnadze was losing control.

In the latest blow to the leader–a journalist declared on state television he could not present a political chat show while having to seek presidential permission to invite guests.

The chairman of the same channel resigned on Wednesday–refusing to present what he called a biased pro-presidential view. The deputy prosecutor general–whose wife is an opposition leader–also quit on Thursday–citing political pressure.

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