Crucial Days for Georgia After President's Ouster

The opposition uprising that forced President Eduard Shevardnadze's (searchresignation ended with fireworks, not fire-fights. But Georgia's interim government faces a myriad of threats as it moves toward elections for a new president and parliament in the crucial days ahead.

It's not clear how long the opposition will remain united now that Shevardnadze is out of the picture, and the country of 4.9 million, is already fractured, with two regions that claim independence from the capital and a third feared to be moving toward secession.

Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili said Monday that he didn't expect violence, but said, given Georgia's history of political bloodshed, it could always happen.

"There have been fears that Georgia will fall apart for the last seven centuries," he said. "What could have been falling apart has always been falling apart. We have to pull the country back together."

The greatest potential for new conflict outside the capital lies in the autonomous Black Sea region of Adzharia, run by Saakashvili's opponent Aslan Abashidze. As protesters in Tbilisi (searchcheered Shevardnadze's ouster, Abashidze declared a state of emergency in his region and has reportedly closed its borders with the rest of the nation.

On Monday, he declared that Adzharia was breaking contacts with the transitional figures in Tbilisi and would resume contacts only after a new president is elected.

"Unfortunately, the leaders of this (opposition) movement do not conceal their aggressive attitude to everything, particularly Adzharia," Abashidze told local television. "The only correct course of action is what we are doing now. The people should stand up for their interests."

Reflecting Adzharia's key role, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov flew directly there after his talks Sunday night in Tbilisi. Ivanov had negotiated a peaceful resolution of the crisis between Shevardnadze and the opposition.

Ivanov said Monday that he traveled there at Shevardnadze's request to inform Abashidze about his talks in Tbilisi.

In an apparent sign of subtle pressure on Abashidze, Ivanov said in Moscow: "The president of Adzharia has always played a very positive role in the interest of stability in Georgia, in respecting and observing the constitution."

Adzharia is home to a Russian military base, and the population there is largely sympathetic to Russia.

There are also the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both self-proclaimed republics that aren't internationally recognized, and the Pankisi Gorge that borders Russia's separatist region of Chechnya and is a shelter for Chechen rebels.

Other regions populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians could also be sources of tension, said Alexander Russetsky, executive director of the South Caucasus Institute of Regional Security.

"People can't understand the common interests of the country," he said, adding that Georgians' loyalties often extend only to their immediate clan.

Eduard Kokoity, president of the self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia, said Monday that he had strong differences with the two main leaders of the former opposition — Saakashvili and Nino Burdzhanadze (search), the interim president.

"So far, the events in Tbilisi mean nothing to us but instability in a neighboring republic," Kokoity told Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency. "But I fear that (the former opposition) will start looking for an external enemy in order to consolidate Georgian society, and it is right here: South Ossetia and Abkhazia."

It was a common enemy — Shevardnadze — that allowed Saakashvili and Burdzhanadze to form their successful alliance that led to the dramatic change of power.

Dialogue is now key, said Nikoloz Melikadze, director of the Strategic Research Center, a think tank in Tbilisi.

"Now we are facing a principally different task — not destroying a system but building something new," he said.

Still, competing political interests don't necessarily mean instability in a democratic society, said Zurab Bendianishvili, chairman of the Info-Peace information center, a conflict resolution group.

If Saakashvili and Burdzhanadze aren't together, "it will be better — the building of two democratic parties," he said.