Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia 'Practically Out of Control'

APShevardnadze listening to protesters during an opposition rally in Tbilisi on Sunday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze met with opposition leaders Sunday night in a bid to ease growing tension, as demonstrators protested for a second straight day and the defense minister said the situation was "out of control."

The opposition is protesting alleged fraud in Nov. 2 parliamentary elections and an armed attack by masked men on an opposition demonstration Friday.

Shevardnadze met at a government residence with Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the National Movement; Nino Burdzhanadze, leader of the Democrats; and former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, according to presidential spokesman Kakha Imnadze.

The meeting came after Shevardnadze waded into a crowd of protesters earlier Sunday to offer talks with opposition leaders but rejected resignation demands, saying he "cannot allow people who would destroy and devastate everything to come to power."

Earlier on Sunday, Defense Minister David Tevzadze said the situation in the country was "practically out of control."

"I think nothing good is going on here at the moment, and the situation has practically gone out of control. The situation is actually uncontrollable," he told reporters.

Shevardnadze and the country's religious leaders appealed for dialogue after masked men fired Kalashnikov assault rifles at a rally held Friday by Saakashvili's party in the western town of Zugdidi.

"They fired mostly into the air but one woman received a leg injury and a young man was wounded in the arm," Mebrdzoli Chkadua, a deputy to the local prosecutor, told reporters.

Television showed the crowd watching impassively as the gunmen unhurriedly walked about, firing bursts into the air. Georgians have grown used to random violence since the country was plunged into chaos and civil war in the early 1990s.

It was not immediately clear who was behind the shooting.

Adding to the unease, Burdzhanadze's opposition bloc vowed to boycott the legislature to protest what it said was vote rigging by the authorities in last week's election.

Sunday morning, Shevardnadze's attempts to mediate with opposition supporters had been rebuffed, as he appeared unexpectedly in front of the parliament building, where hundreds spent the night after a major protest Saturday.

Shevardnadze was met with cries of "Go away!" But he moved into the crowd with a security escort and spoke to some protesters, including Burdzhanadze, the current parliament speaker.

"Everything will calm down," muttered Shevardnadze as his security guards escorted him through an increasingly aggressive crowd outside parliament.

But after about 15 minutes of futile attempts to initiate a dialogue with the shouting protesters, a grave-looking Shevardnadze slipped into his car and left.

"He ran away because he saw me," said Saakashvili, whose opposition party has scored third place in the preliminary election results.

"The main force behind all the fraud in the latest election is the president. Therefore he must resign," he said.

In televised comments later Sunday, Shevardnadze said he was "elected by the Georgian people, and I do not intend to resign at the demand of individual politicians and a few dozen young people waving flags."

The president also denounced Saakashvili as a "dangerous phenomenon," but said the response of the protesters had not surprised him.

"I expected that kind of reaction. Early in the morning, when I left my house, I made the decision: No matter how difficult or humiliating it may be, I must go to see them, because they are my people, my children and grandchildren.

"I have invited all opposition leaders to talk. ... But they don't want dialogue. All they want is to wave flags and yell 'Go away!'" he said.

Votes were still being tallied a week after the election, and the slow pace was among the causes of opposition complaints.

With ballots from 91 percent of polling places counted, the pro-government party For a New Georgia had 21.4 percent, slightly ahead of the opposition Revival party's 20.1 percent, the Central Elections Commission said. The National Movement had 18.4 percent, while the Labor Party had 12.3 percent and the Democrats just over 8 percent, it said.

Burdzhanadze earlier had called for talks with Shevardnadze but said he must acknowledge the elections were unfair, call a new vote and punish officials responsible for alleged falsifications.

Saakashvili, a key figure in several large rallies that have been held in Tbilisi since the elections, demanded that Shevardnadze resign.

"A conversation with the president can be about only one thing: his resignation," Saakashvili said.

He later said he was prepared to meet with him if the talks are not held at the president's office.

About 8,000 people attended Saturday's rally, and the crowd swelled to several thousand Sunday as opposition supporters joined the die-hard protesters who spent the night in front of parliament, lighting bonfires and singing songs. But a cold rain kept others away.

The slow vote count and widespread allegations of fraud had also prompted a strong U.S. rebuke to Shevardnadze, who has sought close ties with the United States to offset Russian influence.

The election was watched as a rehearsal for politicians vying to succeed the 75-year-old Shevardnadze in 2005, when he is to step down after the maximum two terms. But opponents accuse him of failing to tackle corruption and economic troubles in the country and want him out now.

"Let him leave along with his whole band," said Amiran Asatiani, a 20-year-old who joined Sunday's protest.

(AP, Reuters)