TBILISI, Georgia – Georgian lawmakers on Tuesday set a new presidential election for Jan. 4 and debated when to call a vote for a new parliament, steps seen as key to keeping stability after the ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Georgia's highest court invalidated the fraud-tainted Nov. 2 parliamentary elections that sparked huge protests, driving Shevardnadze out of power. The ruling leaves the old parliament in place for now.
"We should stand side by side independent of nationality, independent of political interests," parliamentary speaker and interim President Nino Budrzhanadze (search) told the legislators. "Today we are starting a new era."
A vase of red roses stood on the speaker's lectern, a reminder of the flowers protesters carried in what many have called Georgia's "rose revolution" or "velvet revolution" — in reference to the movement that toppled communism in Czechoslavakia in 1989.
The lawmakers set the date for a presidential vote, but put off the decision on when to hold a new parliament vote until Wednesday.
Mikhail Saakashvili (search), a top Shevardnadze opponent who is likely to be the front-runner in any presidential vote, urged the legislators to set the election date.
"If this session doesn't set new elections, Georgia will find itself in a state of civil war," he said before lawmakers convened.
A new parliamentary election will decide the number of seats held by each party; the 75 legislators elected in individual, as opposed to party, races on Nov. 2 will keep their seats.
Saakashvili has warned of the continuing potential for violence in spite of the peaceful outcome of the three-week political standoff between Shevardnadze and the opposition.
His remarks seemed to be aimed at Adzharia (search), an autonomous province in southwestern Georgia on the Black Sea led by his opponent, Aslan Abashidze.
Abashidze, who declared a state of emergency in the province, said Monday that Adzharia was breaking off relations with the interim leadership in Tbilisi until a new president was elected. Train and air service were cut and regional security forces sealed provincial borders. A political party led by Abashidze said it would boycott the parliament.
The new leaders "do not conceal their aggressive attitude to everything, particularly Adzharia," Abashidze said Monday. "The only correct course of action is what we are doing now. The people should stand up for their interests."
Eduard Kokoity, the leader of South Ossetia (search), a province that split from Georgia in 1992, said Tuesday in Moscow he had ordered his region's borders also be strengthened.
The separatist province of Abkhazia (search), which has run its own affairs since driving out Georgian troops in a bloody 1992-93 war, has made similar statements, although it said Tuesday it was ready for dialogue with the interim government.
Shevardnadze resigned Sunday after a decade of mounting discontent and three weeks of protests over the parliamentary elections his critics said exemplified the corruption in the former Soviet republic during his reign. He said he quit to avoid a bloodbath in a region steeped in violence.
Georgia, which sits astride a planned oil pipeline between the Caspian Sea and Western customers and is wedged between NATO-member Turkey and Russia, is of strategic interest to both Washington and Moscow.