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Georgia's  Embattled Leader Agrees to Talk with Opposition Over Election Flaws - 2003-11-09

The president of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, has agreed to talks with key opposition leaders who have accused his government of rigging the parliamentary election a week ago.

Mr. Shevardnadze agreed to the talks after thousands of protesters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, demonstrated their anger over results of the election and called for the president to resign.

Protests have been held in different parts of Georgia since the election, which opposition leaders say was rigged by the government.

The 75-year-old Georgian president took the unprecedented step of walking out into the crowd of protesters near the parliament building to talk with people about the election.

Surrounded by bodyguards, Mr. Shevardnadze held some animated conversations with the protesters. He rejected their calls for his resignation, saying he was legally elected by the Georgian people and would not step down.

Mr. Shevardnadze's term of office lasts for two more years, and the vote a week ago was to decide the composition of a new parliament.

Officially, the pro-government group known as For a New Georgia had a slight lead over two opposition organizations. Each of the three groups won about 20 percent of the vote.

But opposition leaders say the government did so well only because election officials falsified the vote count. International observers also said the vote was seriously flawed.

By late Saturday, when about 80 percent of ballots had been counted, the central election commission announced it would release no more results until complaints of irregularities had been handled in court.

The focus of discontent has now shifted to the issue of Mr. Shevardnadze's rule, with at least one key opposition leader saying he would settle for nothing less than the president's resignation. This provoked a sharp rebuke from one of Mr. Shevardnadze's key supporters, Irina Sarishvili of the For a New Georgia bloc, who accused opposition leaders of pursuing their own ambitions at the country's expense.

Mr. Shevardnadze is well known outside Georgia for his role in helping end the Cold War while he served as foreign minister of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He returned to his native Georgia a decade ago and was then credited with helping restore stability as the country was wracked by civil uprisings.

But in recent years Mr. Shevardnadze has been widely criticized for failing to crack down on corruption and for not halting Georgia's economic decline.