Georgian Talks Left In Disarray

APOpposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze talking on a phone during a protest rally outside the Georgian parliament building Thursday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia's opposition on Thursday demanded veteran President Eduard Shevardnadze 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 Nov. 2 poll victory for the authorities, opposition leader Mikheil 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. ... [He] 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 country in the early 1990s.

Shevardnadze 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 standoff 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, to have negotiations with them, and 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.

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," Shevardnadze said. "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.