Opposition backers stormed the Georgian Parliament Saturday as the outgoing president attempted to officially open a session of the legislative body, which protestors said was the illegal result of vote rigging.
The next day, tens of thousands continued to protest in the streets while opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili delivered an ultimatum that Shevardnadze should resign or risk having his house stormed by protestors.
Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, is considered a key figure in the end of the Cold War and has led Georgia for some 12 years. But the outgoing president has lately seen his country descend into an economic collapse amid charges of political corruption and general public dissatisfaction, reflected in years of extremely weak public approval ratings.
“I have never betrayed my people and I am stating now, too, that it is probably better for the president to resign, so all this can end peacefully and there is no bloodshed and no casualties,” the 75-year-old Georgian leader said in televised remarks announcing his resignation.
According to media reports, the president’s resignation was met with cheers, street parties and celebratory fireworks, averting fears that the violence-plagued region could turn dangerous.
“We did what we wanted. This is our freedom,” one resident participating in the revelry told the BBC.
The speaker of the outgoing parliament and key opposition figure Nino Burdzhanadze assumed the interim leadership of the former Soviet republic until elections can be held in 45 days and appealed to Georgia’s people to cooperate with her government.
“Order must be restored immediately not only in Tbilisi but also in all the regions of the country,” Burdzhanadze said in a nationally televised speech. She also restored the old parliament and said she would cancel the state of emergency Shevardnadze had declared two days earlier saying there was no need for it.
The interim leader also acted quickly to ensure the loyalty of the country’s armed forces, convening a meeting with top security officials.
Life in Tbilisi appeared to be returning to normal Monday with residents returning to work and traffic flowing freely, according to media reports.
Saakashvili, head of the National Movement and the loudest voice in the anti-Shevardnadze protests, is considered a front-runner in the upcoming presidential elections although he will face competition from other opposition groups interested in retaining some power for themselves in the new government.
Saakashvili praised the outgoing president for “a courageous act” in stepping down. He has also said there would be no further retribution, telling reporters the country would consider it a point of honor to provide Shevardnadze and his family with “guarantees of absolute security,” according to The New York Times.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sent his foreign minister to Georgia to help mediate the crisis, expressed some concern that Shevardnadze had been forced to resign under the threat of force.
But he added that the overthrow followed “systemic errors in foreign, domestic and economic policy” under Shevardnadze.
“Relations between Russia and Georgia in recent years had been quite difficult,” Putin said. “We assume the future legally elected leadership of the country will do everything possible to restore the tradition of friendship between our countries.”
Sandwiched in a critical part of the mountainous Caucasus region, Georgia sits astride a planned oil pipeline between the Caspian Sea and Western customers and is situated between NATO-member Turkey and Russia. It also borders the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya, which has been fighting for independence from Moscow for over a decade.
In her speech, Burdzhanadze said that Georgia would do the utmost to maintain positive relations with its neighbors. She also reaffirmed the nation’s pro-Western foreign policy course pursued by Shevardnadze.
“Georgia will firmly continue to realize the foreign policy course that was chosen by the country from the first days of the restoration of its independence: The road to integration and the soonest joining of European and Euro-Atlantic structures,” she said.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has telephoned Burdzhanadze to offer Washington’s support and encourage her and her colleagues to operate within the parameters of Georgia’s constitution.
“We look forward to working with Interim President Burjanadze [sic] in her effort to maintain the integrity of Georgia’s democracy as she strives to ensure that this change in government follows the constitution,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a press statement.
The statement called Shevardnadze a “valued member of the international community” and that Powell had spoken to the outgoing Georgian leader and “thanked him for his role in bringing this crisis to a peaceful resolution.”
Despite early reports that he had left Georgia for Germany, a German television outlet quoted Shevardnadze Monday as saying that he wanted to remain in his home country.
“Although I love Germany very much, my home is Georgia and I owe it to it to stay here,” he told Germany’s ZDF television in an interview, a transcript of which was released ahead of broadcast. “I am not thinking of coming to Germany. But I am thankful for the invitation.”