To scenes of wild jubilation in the streets of Tbilisi, Shevardnadze was forced to resign late Sunday and hand over the reins of power to one of the opposition leaders, in a climax to weeks of angry protests over a disputed parliamentary poll.

The 75-year-old Georgian leader, a former Soviet foreign minister who used to be the darling of the West, had remained defiant in the face of demands for him to step down, but in the end, he cut a lonely figure.

"I am leaving," he said in televised comments after meeting with the leaders of the opposition.

"I have never betrayed my people and that's why I think that as president, I should submit my resignation," Shevardnadze said.

Rigged elections

Since 2 November, Shevardnadze had faced daily street protests by thousands of Georgians over the elections, which have been denounced as rigged by the opposition and foreign governments.

The United States, a long-standing Shevardnadze supporter, delivered a particularly stinging blow earlier this week when it voiced disappointment in his leadership.

As Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister, Shevardnadze had been one of the architects of perestroika and a key player in negotiations with the United States over arms reductions.

But when he took over at the helm of his home country, Shevardnadze fell hostage to vested interests. He turned a blind eye to corruption and, in recent years, has appeared increasingly helpless to prevent Georgia from sinking into poverty and chaos.

Party man

Eduard Ambrosiyevich Shevardnadze was born on 28 May, 1928, in the town of Mamati, near Georgia's Black Sea coast. At age 20, he joined the Communist Party and began a rapid climb through the ranks.

He made his name working in the interior ministry in charge of "public order", a euphemism for the sometimes brutal repression of his fellow Georgians under the Soviet regime.

Shevardnadze was rewarded in 1972 with his appointment as first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, and in 1988 he was promoted again, this time to the Politburo in Moscow.

Shevardnadze was elected Georgia's president in 1995. He opened up the economy and drafted a constitution creating the framework for a liberal, democratic state along western lines.

He arrived just as Gorbachev was starting to implement his perestroika reforms in the face of resistance from hardliners.

Shevardnadze sided with the reformist camp. As foreign minister, he was at Gorbachev's side for a series of historic US-Soviet summits on nuclear disarmament.

But he resigned in 1990, complaining that hardliners were trying to take over. A year later, the Soviet Union disintegrated.

New beginning

Shevardnadze resurfaced in Georgia in 1992 as chairman of the newly-independent republic's Security Council.

The country was in turmoil. Shevardnadze stepped in to become de facto head of state. The wars with separatists in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were lost, but against the odds he held what was left of Georgia together.

"It was a tremendous achievement, even a miracle," said one Western diplomat.

Shevardnadze was elected Georgia's president in 1995. He made a hopeful beginning. He opened up the economy and drafted a constitution creating the framework for a liberal, democratic state along western lines.

Helped by his status as a hero of perestroika, Georgia attracted aid and investment from the United States and Europe.

'Pact with the devil'

But then things started to go wrong. Shevardnadze's critics say he entered into a pact with the devil - powerful interests were allowed to get away with corruption in exchange for giving him their political loyalty.

Crime and graft quickly spiralled out of control. Taxes were not collected and economic reforms stalled. By 2003 the state was nearly bankrupt and Georgia was missing payments on its massive foreign debts.

Western investors were put off by a spate of kidnappings in which the security services were implicated. Shevardnadze himself was lucky to survive two assassination attempts in 1995 and 1998.

Even Shevardnadze's most steadfast friends in the West grew exasperated with him. Washington cut aid to Tbilisi earlier this year.

Shevardnadze had been officially due to retire in 2005, after three decades of dominating political life in Georgia.