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GEORGIA
Rebellion in a former USSR republic
Mass protests topple U.S. ally

By Elizabeth Schulte | December 5, 2003 | Page 5

CELEBRATING PROTESTERS choked the streets of Georgia's capital of Tbilisi at the end of November after demonstrations brought down the corrupt 11-year rule of Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze was forced to resign November 23 after mass protests culminated in opposition leaders storming the parliament building in what has been called the "rose revolution."

The demonstrations were sparked by widespread fraud and ballot-rigging by Shevardnadze supporters in November 2 parliamentary elections. But they gave expression to the broader anger over Georgia's ever-deepening political and social crisis.

Shevardnadze was an official in the KGB spy agency when Georgia was part of the former USSR, and he later became Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister. He became the president of Georgia in 1992, a year after the breakup of the USSR.

At that time, Shevardnadze was the darling of Washington and seen as a player in ending the Cold War. He came to power in Georgia promising that he would clean up state corruption and introduce the free market to bring prosperity.

Instead, the country was thrust into civil war and crippling poverty. Today, Georgia--a country of some 5 million people that was once considered one of the prosperous regions of the USSR--is in deep economic crisis. Unemployment is around 20 percent, and the majority of Georgians live below the poverty line.

Shevardnadze proceeded to share out power and influence among old bosses of the USSR's state-run system, and the newly arisen gangster capitalists. Over the last decade, the U.S. has maintained a close relationship with Shevardnadze's regime, with Georgia becoming the second biggest recipient of per-capita U.S. aid after Israel.

Today, both the U.S. and Russia see high stakes in what happens next in Georgia. Both countries maintain military forces in Georgia.

The areas of Abkazia and South Ossetia in the northwest--which have maintained independence from the Georgia government since the 1990s--have long been manipulated by Russia to keep the Tbilisi government in check.

The area near the Pankisi Gorge in the east is seen as an important front in the "war on terrorism" by both Russia, which is fighting a scorched-earth war against resistance fighters in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, and the U.S., which claims that terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda are organizing there.

But one of the main reasons for both governments' interest in Georgia is simple--oil. Georgia doesn't have the oil and gas reserves that neighboring Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan do, but it is a crucial route for those resources to pass through on their way to Western markets--and an alternative to pipelines through Russia or Iran.

The U.S. has huge investments in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that will take Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan to the Turkish coast through Georgia. Meanwhile, Russia backs an alternative pipeline that takes a more northerly route through Chechnya.

For protesters on the streets of Tbilisi last week, the hopes for change were clear. But it's far from clear that the people who have positioned themselves at the head of the opposition will do much to meet these expectations.

The forces that pushed Shevardnadze out of office are all former members of his government. Mikhail Saakashvili, the favorite in presidential elections that will take place January 4, was educated and trained in the U.S. before he became Shevardnadze's minister of justice in the mid-1990s.

"I was really raised on American democracy, not only my studies but much more," he told the Washington Post. "For me, the closest thing in terms of political orientation is John McCain. We're very close." Saakashvili also has the support of the activist student group Kmara, which is widely believed to be sponsored by U.S. billionaire George Soros.

Nino Burdzhanadze, the chair of the outgoing parliament, who is now acting interim president, broke with Shevardnadze in August over his handling of the U.S. energy giant AES Corp., which sold its operations in Georgia to a Russian state energy company at a huge loss.

Some commentators fear that civil war could again be looming in Georgia. Immediately after Shevardnadze fell, Aslan Abashidze, the leader of Georgia's province of Adzharia, which borders Turkey in the southwest, declared a state of emergency. He has yet to recognize the new interim government.

Another warning sign is Saakashvili's reliance on nationalist rhetoric to rally support for his National Movement Party, which brought back a Georgian feudal-era flag as its symbol. But that doesn't meant Saakashvili isn't ready to do Washington's bidding.

Last week, the Bush administration voiced its pleasure at Shevardnadze's resignation, and Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned Burdzhanadze to lend U.S. support. Saakashvili says that he wishes to mend fences with Russia, as well as strengthen Georgia's ties to Washington.

The International Monetary Fund has already announced that it's ready to provide help in the form of loans that it denied to the previous regime. But this kind of "help" will only sink the people of Georgia into deeper misery.

The solution to Georgia's crisis lies with the people who gathered in the streets of Georgia last week--and their willingness to go further than opposition leaders are ready to.

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