"It's the Georgian velvet revolution!" proclaimed jubilant radical opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili as he and hundreds of cheering supporters burst into Tbilisi's parliament Saturday afternoon. By nightfall, the country was in chaos, its leadership uncertain, its territorial integrity threatened and there were still some fears that the velvet might become stained with blood. The legislative body, elected in Nov 2. polls that were marred by charges of widespread vote rigging, had been ordered into session by President Eduard Shevardnadze, but only 114 of the 235 deputies had bothered to show up.
The security services, who had earlier said they would use force to protect the meeting, abruptly withdrew. Shielded by his bodyguards, an enraged Shevardnadze escaped the raging crowd, only to find the streets outside packed with some 30,000 protesters screaming for his resignation. Escorted to safety by police, he declared a state of emergency and placed the military and security forces on high alert. Shevardnadze accused his opponents of mounting a coup a charge Saakashvili denied. But late Saturday night, many of his supporters remained inside the parliament building.
To compound the confusion, another opposition leader, former Speaker Nino Burjanadze, appeared to proclaim herself interim president, thanking the police and military for "keeping out of the fight." The largely autonomous region of Ajaria began urgent consultations with two long-estranged provinces, heightening fears of a breakup of the country. Shevardnadze, meanwhile, rejected pleas by his own advisers and the U.S. State Department to resolve the crisis through negotiations.
Yet he finally caved in on Sunday afternoon after Saakashvili gave him an ultimatum to go at talks mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. The key factor was when the army withdrew its support from the veteran president.
Georgia's constitution says new elections must be held within 45 days. In the meantime Burdzhanadze will serve as acting president.