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Georgian President Shevardnadze Quits Under Pressure - 2003-11-23

Celebrations erupted in the streets of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, Sunday, after President Eduard Shevardnadze announced his resignation. Mr. Shevardnadze agreed to step down in the wake of massive opposition protests against his government, following elections earlier this month that were seen as fraudulent.

The skies of Tbilisi lit up with colorful fireworks, as word of the resignation filtered into the streets, where tens-of-thousands of protesters turned out to pressure Mr. Shevardnadze to quit.

People broke into song, dance and tears on the news that Mr. Shevardnadze's decade in power had come to a peaceful end.

One man, a vendor on the main avenue in front of parliament, said he is confident better days lie ahead. The man said, at long last, he has hope that Georgia will become a democratic and civilized nation, oriented to the West.

President Shevardnadze announced his resignation late Sunday, after a day of intense negotiations with the political opposition. The talks were mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Mr. Ivanov said that there was no issue that could not be resolved through dialogue.

Announcing his resignation on national television, Mr. Shevardnadze said he had never betrayed the Georgian people, and so would be stepping down from power. Not to do so, he said, would surely lead Georgia into civil war, and he said he did not want to see his people hurt.

His announcement came shortly after leaders of Georgia's political opposition urged tens-of-thousands of supporters already occupying parliament to seize more offices of state power.

Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation leaves the speaker of the outgoing parliament, opposition leader Nino Burjanadze, as the acting interim president, until new elections can be held. New Parliamentary elections are to be held in 45 days.

Georgia's main opposition leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, of the National Movement, has said Mr. Shevardnadze will be spared criminal prosecution for years of alleged corruption and misrule.

In the streets of Tbilisi Sunday, celebrants expressed hope for the future.

A refugee of Georgia's war in Abkhazia said she hopes Georgia's next president will bring peace and prosperity. "I'm tired. I don't want anymore to be [a] refugee to be [a] suffering person, its time to begin good and new life in Georgia, too," she said.

Georgia has a huge task ahead. The country has staggering poverty and unemployment, coupled with a near total collapse of public infrastructure. But the nation's people also have joy and hope in their hearts, after what they are calling their velvet revolution.