TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgia’s opposition vowed on Wednesday to bring "thousands and thousands" of people to the capital over the next few days–many traveling on foot–to demand that President Eduard Shevardnadze step down.
In another blow to the veteran leader–the chairman of state television resigned–saying he would not be forced to present a biased view in favor of a president "living in a vacuum." Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Moscow was worried the situation was out of control in Georgia–which has been convulsed by opposition protests since a disputed parliamentary election on November 2.
Denunciations of electoral fraud have snowballed into calls for Shevardnadze’s departure by protesters angry over eroded living standards–corruption–and a failure to regain territory lost to separatists. Shevardnadze–75–has refused to go. The president had expressed hope that publication of the official results–due by law on Thursday–would bring an end to the protests. He has pledged to convene parliament soon after.
On Wednesday–he again warned people against taking part in rallies for fear of triggering a civil war.
"The situation is more critical than I can say," he said. "Remember my one phrase: it is a short step from civil confrontation to civil war." Mikhail Saakashvili–the main opposition leader–said people would start traveling to Tbilisi on Thursday–but many would not arrive until the weekend as they would be on foot. He said he did not fear any loss of momentum–though protests have dwindled since last Friday–when he staged the biggest protest seen in Georgia in a decade. "From tomorrow we will start rallies and we will bring thousands and thousands of people to Tbilisi,” he told reporters–refusing to rule out violence on the streets.
"You cannot exclude anything anymore as things are getting more and more dramatic."
APPEALS FOR RESTRAINT
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. The country is seen as key to securing an oil pipeline from neighboring Azerbaijan to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast – an alternative to a Gulf outlet. "The current situation in Georgia is a cause for concern for us–especially the fact that matters have got out of control,” Ivanov told CNN in an interview–a transcript of which was posted on the foreign ministry’s Web site.
"We appeal to Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze and all political forces in the country not to give in to emotion.” Shevardnadze–who helped end the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister–told ministers on Wednesday he was unhappy with state television. He said it had failed to present his case. Zaza Shengelia–the channel’s chairman–said he could not fulfill Shevardnadze’s deman’s.
"I am very sad that the president today–as he often has–is living in a vacuum. The people around him–many reactionary people–ensure he doesn’t have a genuine and clear picture of what is happening in the country.” Shengelia’s wife said she was resigning as minister of culture in sympathy. Outside parliament–some 600 pro-Shevardnadze demonstrators listened to speeches for a second day praising the president as a guarantor of stability. Thousands were ferried to Tbilisi by bus on Tuesday–but most appeared unsure why they were there.