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Reporter's Notebook: Georgia's Rose Revolution - 2003-11-25

Georgia's former president, Eduard Shevardnadze, was swept from power by massive street protests during the weekend. As with so many recent similar situations around the world, the political crisis came down to a decision by police officers and soldiers on whether or not to attack their own people.

No matter which way you turned down Tbilisi's narrow cobblestone streets this past Saturday, you met a wall of protesters, waving red and white opposition flags and calling for President Shevardnadze to resign and go.

The demonstration by more than 50,000 people was the largest in a series of mass protests during the previous three weeks.

Directly across the street from the parliament building, which was the focus of the protests, is an old Georgian Orthodox church. Throughout the days of demonstrations, people crowded into the church for a break from the tension outside.

18-year-old Georgian girl says she came to pray for peace and for Georgia's future prosperity.

But the calm of the church ended at its front door.

Nearby in the wide expanse of Freedom Square, 19-year-old Inga Verakashvili stood with her friends. She said she and everyone else in Georgia were tired of Mr. Shevardnadze and his government, and that it is time for them to go. She could not have known how quickly that would actually happen.

A few hours later, as the new parliament prepared to have its first session, the demonstrators stormed the building, disrupted the meeting and forced President Shevardnadze to flee. The following day, he resigned.

The speed of the events Saturday and Sunday made the process appear to be inevitable. But it did not seem that way at the time.

Columns of menacing-looking police and interior ministry troops, with secret service officers mingling in-between, stood guard at the parliament building. In spite of their imposing appearance, they stepped forward with outstretched arms to help reporters climb the barricades outside parliament and mount the building's steps.

But later, as a confrontation with the demonstrators seemed to be imminent, the head of the police unit came to reporters and urged them to move on. He said, 'We do not want to hurt you and we can no longer guarantee your safety.' His appeal came as thousands of opposition demonstrators were on the move approaching the barricades, and the police and soldiers were lined up on the other side, behind their armored shields.

But the confrontation never happened.

As they arrived to face-off with the troops, the protesters raised their hands in the air to show they did not have any weapons. And then came the moment. The troops stepped aside and let them pass. The security men were not willing to fight the protesters in order to protect the parliament and the president.

It was President Shevardnadze's alleged cheating in the parliamentary election this month that sparked the series of protests that ended his rule.

A short while later, the leader of Georgia's main opposition group, Mikhail Saakashvili of the National Movement, urged his supporters to maintain a vigil outside parliament in order to protect their gains. The people answered his call, quickly lighting small fires in the streets and bursting into song and dance.

The crowd was also entertained by replays of the storming of parliament, played on a massive outdoor television screen on the façade of the building.

The protesters maintained their vigil all through Sunday, as the Russian foreign minister helped negotiate President Shevardnadze's resignation. As word of the resignation filtered into the streets, all the tension of the preceding weeks was released, and the celebration began.

The skies of Tbilisi lit up with colorful fireworks and the next six or seven hours brought a deafening and sustained roar of car horns and people's cheers.

But by morning, the city was returning to normal. Along the avenue in front of parliament on the first day of the post-Shevardnadze era, people passed by on their way to shop, eat, or go to work.

A young policeman manned his post guarding Georgia's National Bank, wearing a smile and the bravado of hindsight.

The policeman says he is very happy the political crisis was resolved without bloodshed, adding that he knew all along that his fellow-police officers and the military would not turn against their own people.

Meanwhile, some people came to the scene of the weekend's momentous events to place flowers and candles outside the parliament building. The flowers represent what is being called The Rose Revolution, a day few Georgians will ever forget.