| A Georgian woman holding flowers smiles as special forces leave the presidential residence without fighting. (AFP)
Tbilisi, Nov. 23 (Reuters): Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze today announced he had quit, bowing to Opposition protesters who stormed Parliament declaring a “velvet revolution” and demanding his resignation.
“I see that all this cannot simply go on. If I was forced tomorrow to use my authority it would lead to a lot of bloodshed. I have never betrayed my country and so it is better that the President resigns,” Shevardnadze said on television.
Asked who would be the next President of the former Soviet republic, he said: “It is not my business.”
His resignation followed talks with Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, main Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili and fellow opposition activist Zurab Zhvania at the veteran Georgian President’s suburban residence in the capital Tbilisi.
Tens of thousands of Opposition supporters outside Parliament exploded in rapturous celebrations when Shevardnadze gave up power in a country closely watched by the West and investors because of a pipeline project to take Caspian oil to the Mediterranean Sea. Fireworks ripped into the sky.
Saakashvili had called on supporters to march on Shevardnadze’s residence to force him to resign after a three-week protest campaign, accusing him of rigging a November 2 parliamentary election in a poverty-plagued country.
Shevardnadze had said earlier in the day he was ready to discuss key opposition demands, including an early presidential poll, but opponents said it was too late for talks.
His resignation occurred amid signs that some of the security forces were moving over to the Opposition side in Georgia, where a bloody civil war was fought in the early 1990s and two regions have broken away from central government rule. A group of up to 200 men and women, saying they were members of the national guard, joined the Opposition supporters.
Saakashvili, asked whether he was ready for talks, said: “It’s too late.” He told CNN that the speaker of the outgoing Parliament, Nino Burdzhanadze, would take over as acting President from Shevardnadze, who ruled Georgia for 11 years.
“Now it is important that President Shevardnadze and the police of Georgia and the armed forces as well as the acting President preserve stability and calm in the country, Saakashvili said.” He also urged protesters to take down their barricades in the capital Tbilisi and reiterated pledges to guarantee the veteran leader’s security.
“He (Shevardnadze) took a very dignified step and...I think he should stay in this country. He should not flee anywhere. We will give him all the...necessary guarantees to be secure for his family and himself.”
Asked if he could guarantee that Shevardnadze would be given immunity from prosecution, Saakashvili said: “It’s hard to say right now, but...we always said he should not be persecuted. He took this courageous step and did not try to fight and we should appreciate that. He has avoided bloodshed in the country.”