Eyewitness: Shevardnadze meets students

November 16, 2001

Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze may have averted a potential threat to his power by meeting university students to defuse tensions after a week of anti-government demonstrations in the capital, Tbilisi.

A four-hour meeting on the campus of Tbilisi State University ended with Mr Shevardnadze promising to set up a consultative council of students.

The student movement is poorly organised, but harnessing the power of its opinion is seen as critical.

Mr Shevardnadze's most acute political crisis for years was sparked by a heavy-handed raid by interior ministry troops on popular commercial television station Rustavi-2 - ostensibly to investigate alleged tax offences.

Emotions about Rustavi-2, a strong government critic with a record of attacking Georgia's notoriously corrupt civil servants and ministers, had been running high since July when a presenter was shot dead. The killing sent the nation into mourning, and the tax raid ignited anger about corruption, the stagnant economy, power cuts and the botched attempts to contain separatist rebellion in the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Observers said thousands of demonstrators, most of whom were students, flooded the streets of Tbilisi in largely peaceful demonstrations calling for Mr Shevardnadze's resignation and an end to corruption.

Mr Shevardnadze was quick to champion press freedom in an attempt to silence critics who said Georgia was following a similar path to Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, in quashing opposition in the media.

His next move was to court the students.

"The meeting between Mr Shevardnadze and the students ended with his personal victory," said Alexander Rondeli, a Georgian political analyst.

"Mr Shevardnadze said that it was impossible for him to resign because it would be treason to leave the country without a president. The students were weak and emotional and Mr Shevardnadze is an experienced operator."

The establishment of the student council, which will meet every month with the president, was a sharp move by a wily survivor, Mr Rondeli added.

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