Bloodied but Unbowed, Shevardnadze Vows to Fight for Presidency
TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ A day after narrowly escaping death in a car bomb attack, Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze told a rally he will run for the country’s new presidency.
Shevardnadze, his face showing cuts from the attack, made his announcement to a crowd in Republic Square, a few hundred yards from the parliament building, where the car bomb went off.
Shevardnadze, best known for helping to carry out Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms, has been trying to restore stability to this former Soviet republic torn apart by rising crime and a separatist rebellion.
``There was an attempt to kill the head of state ... God saved not only me but also the country,″ declared Shevardnadze, a former communist who converted to Orthodox Christianity soon after becoming independent Georgia’s leader in 1992.
``I have decided finally to put myself forward for presidential elections in Georgia in November,″ he told the crowd of about 4,000.
The bombing, for which no one has claimed responsibility, has threatened the relative stability that Shevardnadze brought to Georgia in the last few months. But it also has given him enormous political capital, and he has no real rivals for the Nov. 5 elections.
``He was not so popular but he will be now,″ said Zurab Beridze, 42, who moonlights as a driver to supplement his meager state attorney’s salary.
Riot police ringed the square’s perimeter while Shevardnadze’s bodyguards, sweating in flak jackets under a hot sun, talked nervously over walkie-talkies.
The blast Tuesday went off shortly before Shevardnadze was to have attended the signing of Georgia’s new constitution, which creates a presidency more powerful than the positions he now holds: head of state and chairman of parliament.
In what was his first election speech, Shevardnadze praised the constitution and promised that Georgia’s 5.6 million people ``will live better tomorrow than they live today.″
Shevardnadze has already reined in the warlords who held Georgia ransom. The gunfire that used to rock Tbilisi nightly has ceased for months, and new stores and cafes have enlivened the streets.
A loan from the International Monetary Fund will back a new currency to be introduced next month.
Still, the bomb, which destroyed several cars and blew out the windows of the back of the parliament building, is a stark reminder of how fragile Georgia’s newfound stability is.
On the street, many Georgians suspect Russian links to Tuesday’s bombing, saying it is in Moscow’s interest to scuttle elections and keep Georgia weak.
Security Minister Igor Giorgadze said authorities arrested 10 people who had plans of the parliament building and Shevardnadze’s residence. No charges were immediately filed.
In his speech, Shevardnadze also had tough words for breakaway Abkhazia, which he promised to retake by force if peaceful methods fail. Such statements appeal to the approximately 250,000 Georgians who fled Abkhazia when it began its bid for independence in 1993.
Abkhazia is quiet for now, and peace talks were held Wednesday in Moscow.
Four of Shevardnadze’s bodyguards remained hospitalized from the blast, one in critical condition, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.