Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze warned yesterday that his country is on the brink of civil war as thousands of demonstrators rallied again in the centre of the country's capital, calling on him to resign.
Security was tightened around the presidential residence as a crowd of 15,000 marched through Tbilisi. Protesters were warned that authorities would use force if they approached the building and thousands of soldiers and riot police were on standby last night. Protesters formed a human chain around the building and jeered riot police, but they remained peaceful.
In a television address, Mr. Shevardnadze - best known in the West as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister - appealed to Georgians to put an end to the protests that have ground the capital to a standstill every day for almost two weeks since disputed Nov. 2 parliamentary elections.
"The present situation of civil confrontation may develop into a civil war," he said. "I appeal to the population of Georgia not to attend the opposition rally outside the parliament building today."
Mr. Shevardnadze's plea was largely ignored by demonstrators who are frustrated with how Georgia, once the most affluent of the 15 former Soviet republics, has slid into poverty during more than a decade of independence. Many blame Mr. Shevardnadze, whose government is considered among the most corrupt in the world.
The crowd last night moved through Tbilisi's streets chanting "Go away! Go away!" as it approached the presidential residence.
Mikhail Saakashvili, the leader of the opposition National Movement, called on his supporters to paralyze the state. He said the police and army should cease to obey Mr. Shevardnadze, and that ordinary Georgians should stop paying taxes.
"I want to call on every Georgian, every citizen of Georgia regardless of their nationality, to declare total civil disobedience to President Shevardnadze's regime," he told the crowd outside Mr. Shevardnadze's residence. "This man stole everything from us and he is not going to take notice of his own people."
Official results from the Nov. 2 elections, though not yet final, show a pro-Shevardnadze party winning a slim victory over an array of opposition groups, despite opinion polls that predicted the opposite result.
The opposition has charged that the results were fixed, and wants the President to either overturn the results or resign. Foreign observers have also denounced the election as severely flawed.
Mr. Shevardnadze, 75, vowed yesterday to prevent further unrest, and called on opposition leaders to resume dialogue. Talks last week with Mr. Saakashvili and other leaders broke down after they accused Mr. Shevardnadze of stalling for time.
He said he's been personally stung by statements comparing him to Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu and Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, accompanied by warnings he could face a similar fate. Mr. Ceausescu, Romania's last Communist dictator, was executed by his own army, while Mr. Milosevic is currently being tried by the United Nations war crimes tribunal.
"I can only say one thing," Mr. Shevardnadze said. "I'll never follow the fate of either Milosevic or Ceausescu."