TBILISI (Reuters)–Allies of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze ferried thousands of people by bus on Tuesday to a rally in the capital but failed to shore up support for his rule against opposition pressure for his resignation. The rally ran out of steam from the very outset.
Some of the rural protesters listened dutifully to speakers denouncing the opposition’s "fascism and extremism," but many appeared unsure why they had come. By evening–most had left–leaving a few hundred to warm themselves by outdoor fires.
The busloads of mostly men–many in black leather coats– had rolled into Tbilisi from a region in western Georgia to try to counter mass opposition protests. They were joined by a handful of supporters from the capital.
The mountainous nation of five million has been jolted by a wave of protests following a November 2 parliamentary election–which opposition leaders say the authorities stole.
Protests–led by the country’s main opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili–have widened into a call for Shevardnadze’s resignation over corruption–poverty–misrule and a failure to win back two separatist regions.
Western capitals and Moscow are watching the crisis with concern. Unrest in Georgia could affect the volatile southern Caucasus region–where oil majors are building a pipeline to bring Caspian Sea oil to the Mediterranean coast.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Lynn Pascoe told reporters Washington urged both sides to resolve the issue peacefully after he met Shevardnadze and three opposition leaders. "In my conversations with everyone today I have been making the point that this issue should be resolved quickly–and to a maximum extent to the satisfaction of everyone involved," he said.
"Politics is the art of the possible–it is the art of compromise and it is important for Georgia to step up and do this at this time."
VOW TO STAY
Earlier–up to 4,000 people listened outside parliament to speakers. They said the opposition was "using people for their own political goals."
Many came from tiny Adzhara–whose iron-fisted leader has formed an alliance with Shevardnadze. Of the few who spoke to reporters–many backed Shevardnadze–while others said they had simply been told to come.
Those remaining outside parliament after nightfall vowed to remain there for the rest of the week.
"A president should be a president and people should not get it into their heads to try to remove the president," said one supporter. "We all came on the bus. They told us to come."
Shevardnadze–respected in the West for helping end the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister–has been shaken by the deman’s to step down but has refused to give in.
Saakashvili has vowed to bring protesters from throughout the ex-Soviet state to march on the veteran leader’s office. Analysts said he would try to make the protest coincide with publication of final results–due by Thursday–nearly three weeks after the election.
The president–whose political cunning has kept him in power despite widespread discontent and two assassination attempts–said he would convene parliament once the results are published.
Shevardnadze–75–holds a secure majority after making an alliance with the Adzharian leader–Aslan Abashidze–whose party is in second place in the poll–according to incomplete results.
Abashidze–accused in the West of a poor human rights record in his region–has become an emissary of sorts for Shevardnadze–touring neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan and Russia to drum up support. He won a promise of possible mediation by Moscow.