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Poll crisis: Russia backs Shevardnadze

By Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW NOV. 14. Russia has stepped in a two-week standoff in the former Soviet republic of Georgia over a disputed parliamentary poll throwing its weight behind the embattled President, Eduard Shevardnadze, as the Opposition staged the biggest protest rally in the capital Tbilisi.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, met an unofficial emissary for Mr. Shevardnadze in Moscow on Friday in a demonstration of support for the Georgian leader.

The show of support came on the day Opposition parties organised a 5,000-strong rally in front of the presidential office in Tbilisi to press their demand for a new parliamentary vote and the resignation of the President. The Opposition claims the Nov. 2 parliamentary election was rigged. Though the final tally will not be declared until Nov. 20, the Central Election Commission said that the pro-government bloc, For a New Georgia, was leading with about 20 per cent of the vote, followed by the Revival Party of the regional strongman, Aslan Abashidze, who forged an alliance with Mr. Shevarndadze in the standoff.

Emerging from the 90-minute meeting with Mr. Ivanov, the leader of Georgia's autonomous Ajaria region, Aslan Abashidze, said he was satisfied with the talks. Earlier, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, hailed Mr. Shevardnadze's handling of the election crisis when the two leaders spoke by telephone. Mr. Shevardnadze had offered to negotiate with the Opposition, but refused to step down.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been strained in recent years over Georgia's pro-Western tilt and a tolerant attitude to Chechen rebels operating from its territory.

However, Mr. Shevardnadze was forced to turn to Moscow for help as Washington apparently turned away from him, with the U.S. embassy issuing a statement accusing Georgian authorities of "mismanagement and fraud" in the parliamentary poll.

Mr. Shevardnadze's popularity has plummeted as economy has failed to take off in 11 years that he has been in power and the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to defy the central government. If Russia rescues Mr. Shevardnadze, it may strengthen its positions in Georgia, which holds a central place in the U.S.' strategic plans in the region. Georgia is a transit country for a U.S.-pushed oil pipeline under construction that will carry Caspian oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan bypassing Russia.

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