From the streets of Tbilisi during the evening of November 23 one could see the lights of a plane heading west. At that time, only one aircraft had clearance above the capital. It carried Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and, according to some reports, former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, to Batumi, the Ajarian capital. Shevardnadze had resigned only a few minutes earlier an event that prompted euphoria in Tbilisi.
It turned out that Shevardnadze was not on the plane. His precise whereabouts have not been confirmed, but he is widely believed to still be in or around Tbilisi. Following Shevardnadze's resignation, fireworks were set off in different parts of town. "Shevardnadze kaput. Good!" shouted one exuberant Tbilisi resident after hearing the news while more and more honking cars raced through the center, their passengers waving flags. This was hardly the scene one might have predicted early the previous day.
Early on November 22, thousands of soldiers had gathered in the capital's center, sealing off parliament and barricading the roads to it with buses. Thousands of citizens were streaming to the capital from all over Georgia to protest Shevardnadze's intransigence and what many believed to be a rigged parliamentary election November 2. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Shevardnadze attempted to convene a new parliament. But thousands of demonstrators were already outside the building, and started to gather in organized fashion. The peaceful resolution of the ensuing standoff derived from two notable decisions. Troops refused to crack down on demonstrators, with hundreds eventually crossing over to join the opposition. Also, the protestors deployed their own "order troops:" young people dressed in orange T-shirts restrained the demonstrators from provoking the police or soldiers.
"Don't talk to them," urged the young activists told rank-and-file protestors some of whom were shouting abuse at security forces. A few times, the opposition's "order brigade," primarily comprising members of the "Kmara" (Enough), an anti-Shevardnadze student organization, acted to restrain protestors who got too close to the police cordon.
All along, many protestors showed a stubborn optimism that may have influenced events. "I am a little scared," said Keti, an adolescent National Movement supporter who stood near the gate of the State Chancellery, "but I think everything will go well." Inside the gate, according to witnesses, at least five masked, heavily armed soldiers waited in the garden.
The troops may have had more in common with the protestors than seemed obvious at first. "Misha [Mikhail Saakashvili] is great!" said Keti's friend Beso, who later shared cigarettes with two young policemen. They agreed that Saakashvili was "a good guy." Saakashvili, Shevardnadze's former protégé and the leader of the opposition National Movement, led a band of protestors into the parliament. The entry aired live on the Rustavi-2 television channel, prompting roars of "Misha! Misha!" Security forces escorted Shevardnadze out of the building. And then troops started to disappear from the square. In less than an hour, nearly all security troops had departed the area.
With the center cleared of troops, the demonstrators started to celebrate. Some handed out flowers to passers-by, leading others to dub Shevardnadze's withdrawal as the "Rose Revolution." Others burned pictures of Shevardnadze. Not everyone affirmed the results, though. A small group of protestors from Ajaria (who were standing behind the police cordon and in front of the parliament) shouted words of support for Shevardnadze. Eventually, they fled the area.
In fleeing the area around parliament, many of the counter-protesters appeared to take clubs and other weapons out from under their coats as they ran. This display appeared to lend credence to opposition claims that Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze who is widely viewed as having conspired with Shevardnadze to try to rig the election had sent Ajarian police to Tbilisi to pose as demonstrators.
November 23 marked a national holiday St. George's Day helping to swell the legions of opposition protesters. Some estimates put the number of opposition supporters at 60,000. These were not all supporters of Saakashvili's National Movement or the Burjanadze-Democrats, a coalition led by Zurab Zhavnia and interim president Nino Burjanadze. It seemed as though all Georgia's anti-Shevardnadze groups on the right and the left wanted to rejoice in Shevardnadze's flight.
For the opposition, whose leaders have promised to conduct parliamentary and presidential elections within 45 days, a walk through the crowd would have hinted at the unpredictable campaign ahead. "Saakashvili is not that popular," said Zurab, one celebrant. Several people from Mingrelia and other western parts of Georgia expressed support for Georgia's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whose tenure culminated in civil war. "Saakashvili is all right, but Gamsakhurdia, he was such a good man," said Dato, a football coach from Zugdidi.
Optimism mainly prevailed in the central square, as demonstrators celebrated the end of the Shevardnadze era. The entire cabinet, except State Minister Avtandil Jorbenadze and Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili, seems to support the new coalition. (Narchemashvili skipped a meeting on restoring order that Burjanadze called on November 24.) In Ajaria, Abashidze reportedly branded Shevardnadze's voluntary exit from power "unconstitutional" and declared a state of emergency in the region, as Shevardnadze had fruitlessly done in Georgia the day before. The interim government is in contact with Abashidze, said security chief Tedo Japaridze: Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov held talks with the strongman on November 24.
It now seems unclear who is the leading candidate to become Georgia's next president. Burjanadze or Zhvania might run for office, as alternatives to the more radical Saakashvili. Over the weekend, Saakashvili appeared to be the most popular opposition politician. Every opposition leader received applause during speeches over the weekend, but the loudest cheers were reserved for Saakashvili.
Daan van der Schreik has reported from throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. He has covered the Georgian elections for EurasiaNet from Batumi and Tbilisi.