TBILISI(Reuters)–Thousands of Georgians–watched warily by troops–surrounded the heavily guarded offices of embattled President Eduard Shevardnadze in a human chain on Friday and demanded he step down.
Up to 20,000 protesters–ignoring the veteran president’s emotional appeal to stay at home–responded to opposition calls to take the dispute over the November 2 election result to the streets and press Shevardnadze to resign.
The protests–the biggest in Georgia in the decade since the end of a bitter civil war–were watched anxiously by Western governmen’s and oil firms hoping for a return to stability to permit construction of a key oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean. The protesters appeared determined but peaceful–hundreds dancing to an impromptu folk concert outside parliament square.
Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili–stepping up the pressure on the president–demanded "total civil disobedience.”
"This man’stole everything from us and he is not going to take notice of his own people…Never in Georgia were the people so mobilized against the government,” he said. "I call on the army not to act on the unlawful commander-in-chief’s illegal orders,” he said–and urged state workers to strike and police not to go to work. As evening fell–thousands formed a human chain around the presidential office building–a Soviet monolith with a yellowish facade. Interior ministry troops watched as protesters chanted "step down” and "traitor.”
Earlier–Reuters correspondents saw armored vehicles–trucks–and buses with soldiers in body armor outside the interior ministry. The ministry has said it will use force only if protesters target government buildings.
The crisis was triggered by a disputed parliamentary poll almost two weeks ago–in which the opposition said it was robbed of victory. Attempts at talks were launched on Sunday–but ended on Wednesday when Saakashvili walked out. The turmoil has threatened to plunge Georgia into chaos and dash Western hopes of a stable partner in the region to ensure construction of an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean–cutting out Gulf ports.
Shevardnadze–75–has looked to his neighbors in the Caucasus and Russia for support in facing down the protests.
The leader of an autonomous region–with whom Shevardnadze made a political alliance for support after the election–said the situation reminded him of the events that plunged the country into civil war after the Soviet Union collapsed. "If we allow a situation similar to that in late 1991–then peace will never come to the Caucasus. I have this gut feeling that the situation is turning in that direction,” said Aslan Abashidze–the leader of Adzhara–after talks in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Many analysts say Abashidze–a longstanding rival of Shevardnadze–is trying to help him shore up regional support. Earlier–he traveled to neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan. The West has appealed to both sides to find a peaceful way out of the stand-off–hoping for stability in a country seen as key to securing a route to the Mediterranean for oil from Azerbaijan.
Shevardnadze was hailed as the savior of Georgia when he became head of state in 1992. But his popularity has waned and he is now despised for failing to raise living standards–root out corruption–and reunite the country. He warned earlier that the confrontation was coming dangerously close to civil war and said it would be "irresponsible” for him to resign under street pressure.