TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgia’s opposition on Thursday demanded veteran President Eduard Shervardnadze step down to avoid exacerbating a political crisis in a country already on the edge of economic despair.
Speaking to a crowd of about 2,000 protesters–who have demonstrated almost daily against a November 2 poll victory for the authorities–opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili urged them to remain peaceful and not provoke government forces.
The political turmoil–which could dent Western hopes of a stable partner in the Caucasus to secure an alternative source of oil–was triggered by the election and has intensified with the two sides failing to agree how and where to conduct talks.
"There is no alternative to the resignation of Shevardnadze,” a tired-looking Saakashvili said to cheers from the crowd. "All the possibilities for talks with Shevardnadze have been exhausted…Shevardnadze has been trying to hold these talks to win time but I have nothing to talk to him about.”
Western powers have appealed to both sides to resolve the crisis peacefully–hoping to avoid a resurgence of the unrest and separatist violence that shattered the ex-Soviet state in the early 1990s. The uncertainty has hit the local lari currency–which traded at 2.2275 to the dollar on Thursday after falling from 2.175 on Wednesday and around 2.1 before the election.
Shevardnadze–respected in the West for his role in ending the Cold War but plunging in popularity at home as the economy worsens–has dug in his heels in what analysts say is an effort to wear the opposition down by dragging talks out for weeks.
A third attempt at talks to resolve the stand-off ended in disarray late on Wednesday–with Saakashvili walking out.
The opposition leader said he believed Georgia’s other opposition bloc would join calls for Shevardnadze’s ouster.
Earlier–his fellow opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze–said she wanted talks to continue but had been stonewalled by government. "We are ready to meet the government and have negotiations with them; we really want a solution.”
Minor scuffles broke out outside the presidential office where four hunger strikers tried to protest. They were dragged away by dozens of security officers.
Analysts called the new situation "disturbing,” but said the two sides could still return to the negotiating table.
"It is an uncertain situation. . . this type of action can bring instability and violence,” said analyst Archil Gegedshidze of Georgia’s Foundation for Strategic and International Issues.
Earlier–a determined Shevardnadze said he wanted a dialogue with the protesters to ease tensions.
"I do not need to explain myself and I do not need to justify myself,” Shevardanadze told reporters overnight. "I want all of Georgia to know that we are for dialogue.”
Shevardnadze could still compromise by offering to hand his party’s election victory to the opposition–analysts said. Such a gesture would be largely symbolic because he can still form a big enough alliance to maintain his control over the chamber.
Though his position has weakened–the president was unlikely to step down yet–analysts said.
Shevardnadze–a former Soviet foreign minister who was greeted by thousands as the savior of Georgia more than 10 years ago–is now reviled in a country where wages are often not paid and electricity problems leave many without light or heat.
"I want Shevardnadze to say to his people–’I am sorry–my poor people–I will go quietly,”’ said pensioner Lamara Turbanidze.