TBILISI(Reuters)–Georgia’s main opposition leader said he would launch a march on President Eduard Shevardnadze’s offices from all corners of Georgia this week to press deman’s for the veteran leader to quit.
"We are ready to start a march from all regions of Georgia on Shevardnadze’s offices. We will bring people from all the regions of the country and we will–more than likely–start the march the day after tomorrow," Mikhail Saakashvili told a news conference.
A week of opposition protests–triggered by a disputed parliamentary election on November 2–have widened into a call for Shevardnadze’s removal over alleged corruption–poverty–misrule–and the loss of two Georgian provinces.
On Friday–up to 20,000 gathered for Georgia’s biggest protest in a decade–and Saakashvili urged supporters to paralyze the state through "total civil disobedience."
But the embattled president insisted in a radio address on Monday that he would not be removed by force.
The 75-year-old Shevardnadze was respected in the West as a former Soviet foreign minister who helped end the Cold War.
Western capitals and Moscow are now watching the crisis with concern. Any unrest in Georgia could affect the whole–volatile southern Caucasus region–where major oil companies are building a pipeline to bring Caspian Sea oil to the Mediterranean coast.
In what analysts said was a last-ditch effort by the opposition to force Shevardnadze out of office without bloodshed–Saakashvili said he would only hold talks with him when he announced his resignation.
Answering Saakashvili’s call–motorists along the main street of the capital Tbilisi honked their horns while passing Shevardnadze’s offices on Monday to show they did not want to listen to his words.
Outside parliament–followers of Georgia’s deceased former president–Zviad Gamsakhurdia–replaced opposition protesters–and said opposition leaders were "destabilizing" Georgia.
On Monday–dozens of Saakashvili’s supporters also toured Shevardnadze’s offices–giving flowers to his guards–soldiers and police–to try to persuade them of their cause. But that did not develop into larger protests as some had expected.
Shevardnadze–who has left his offices only to go home over the past few days–said protests–strikes–and railway stoppages could bring mountainous Georgia closer to chaos and bloodshed.
"I want to warn everyone…that no one can get the president’s chair by anti-constitutional calls and force," Shevardnadze said in his weekly address to the nation. "It is a small step from a civil stand-off to civil war."
Shrugging off the opposition threat–he said he would wait for the central election commission to publicize results of the election–in which 99 percent of the vote has been counted so far–and then call a meeting of the new parliament.
Preliminary results showed the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia! bloc leading with 20.6 percent–ahead of the Revival Union with 18.7 percent. The bloc led by Saakashvili was on 18.1 percent.
"I think that when parliament starts…we will pass such laws to sort out what is lawful and what is not lawful…The new parliament–I think–will assess this situation [on the street] realistically," he told reporters.
Saakashvili said he would give Shevardnadze a little more time to come up with a compromise–but warned the veteran leader he could be stirring up passions by refusing to acknowledge his people’s deman’s.