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Powell Had Role in Shevardnadze Departure

November 25, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Secretary of State Colin Powell played a discreet off-stage role in the resignation of Georgia’s president, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, making a critical weekend telephone call to signal the longtime leader and U.S. favorite that his time was running out.

Powell also weighed in with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, as Ivanov arrived Saturday in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. While details of their telephone conversation were not disclosed, the Bush administration long has been mindful of Russian interest in the former Soviet republic and neighbor to the south.

Ivanov apparently played the key last-minute role in mediating between the opposition and Shevardnadze, who resigned Sunday after three weeks of protests over disputed parliamentary elections.

But as Shevardnadze’s interim successor, Nino Burdzhanadze, reaffirmed Georgia’s pro-Western stance and protests in the capital began on Monday to give way to order, Powell’s intervention became clear.

Having sent a veteran U.S. diplomat and deputy assistant secretary of state, Lynn Pascoe, to Georgia last week to push for fair elections, Powell called U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, from his McLean, Va., home on Saturday.

Together, Annan and Powell appealed for restraint and a restoration of order in an increasingly dangerous situation, U.S. and U.N. officials said.

``We did not tell him what to do,″ the State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday.

But ``we certainly stayed in very close touch″ with Shevardnadze, Boucher said, and ``we encouraged him to make decisions that would lead Georgia forward in a peaceful manner within the constitution of Georgia.″

``The secretary didn’t discuss resignation with him,″ the spokesman said.

To an experienced diplomat and patriot like the former Soviet foreign minister, Powell’s message must have been unmistakably clear: His nearly 12 years of rule had to come to an end for the sake of restoring constitutional order to Georgia.

Boucher issued a public statement on Saturday, saying the State Department was monitoring the situation closely and calling on all sides to refrain from the use of force or violence.

But on Sunday, after Shevardnadze had resigned, Boucher issued a lengthy statement saying the State Department looked forward to working with Burdzhanadze, offering U.S. support for the new government and saying Shevardnadze’s decision to step down, while ``difficult″ for him, was in the best interest of the people of Georgia.

At the White House on Monday, deputy press secretary Clare Buchan made clear where the administration stood in Shevardnadze’s struggle with the Georgia opposition, led by Mikhail Saakashvili.

``We’re supportive of what the Georgian opposition party did to restore the integrity of Georgian democracy, in terms of using peaceful demonstrations to overturn a fraudulent parliamentary election,″ she said.

Georgia is important to both the United States and Russia for several reasons, principally economic. If pro-Western, it could help American oil companies get a hand on Caspian Sea oil reserves, which may eventually rival that of the Persian Gulf region.

Georgia is on the route of a major oil pipeline now under construction.

The end game of Shevardnadze’s swift fall from power began Saturday after a stunning showdown in the Georgian parliament was televised around the world. Demonstrators rushed into the parliament chambers, scrambling over desks, throwing papers in the air and forcing Shevardnadze to flee the building.

Beyond Powell’s phone calls, Russian President Vladimir Putin also consulted with Shevardnadze by telephone. The U.S. ambassador and a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state met repeatedly with all sides.

By early Sunday, opposition members were threatening to storm Shevardnadze’s residence. Ivanov was inside, speaking with the president and opposition leaders. Soon afterward, Shevardnadze resigned.

Shevardnadze was a longtime favorite of the United States toward the end of the Cold War, treated with special warmth by George P. Shultz and James A. Baker III in their terms as secretary of state in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

As delighted as American officials were with Mikhail Gorbachev, who as the last Soviet president steered a course toward reform and democratic institutions, Shevardnadze was prized even more, especially when he complained publicly Gorbachev was not moving fast enough.

His return to Georgia to become its leader after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemed guaranteed to advance democracy in Georgia. But Shevardnadze faltered in what the West hoped would be a drive toward democracy and prosperity in the country of nearly 5 million people.

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