By Stan Crooke
Three weeks of popular protest in the Caucasian republic of Georgia culminated in the resignation of its president, Eduard Shevardnadze, on 23 November.
Shevardnadze was a Communist Party bureaucrat turned "democrat". He had joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1948 and rose steadily through its ranks. By 1972 he had become head of the CPSU in Georgia.
In 1985 Shevardnadze was appointed the Soviet Union's foreign minister. He pursued a policy of "détente" with the west, and supported Gorbachev's attempts to reform the disintegrating Soviet system. He resigned from his post in 1990.
In 1991 Georgia declared its independence from an effectively defunct Soviet Union. Its first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown the following year. The "Military Council" which had played the leading role in the overthrow offered to make Shevardnadze the head of a new "State Council". Shevardnadze was subsequently elected president of the Georgian republic in 1992, and again in 1995. On both occasions, however, his opponents alleged large-scale ballot-rigging.
Shevardnadze's decade in power was notable for its corruption, its economic failure, and an unswerving pro-US orientation. According to a recent report of the US human rights organisation "Freedom House": "Corruption (in Georgia) is endemic and reaches all levels of government. Senior officials have been accused of embezzlement, smuggling, insider-dealing, and conflicts of interest. Customs and tax evasion is rampant. Business registration is hampered by bribery and an inefficient, corrupt bureaucracy, and organised crime preys on small business owners. The informal economy is estimated at 40/45% of the GDP."
For most Georgians, living standards have fallen over the last decade. Electricity became scarcer with every winter. Water shortages became a fact of life. Unemployment increased as enterprises were privatised and "restructured". Pensions were paid ever less frequently. As one press report lamely put it at the time of Shevardnadze's demise: "The country's economy never successfully made the transition from communist-style planning to a free market."
Such economic decline was all the more striking when set against the US financial support received by Georgia during Shevard-nadze's tenure of office: one and a half billion dollars over the past ten years, making Georgia one of the highest recipients per capita of US aid. Much of the money went into the pockets of the corrupt clans who provided Shevardnadze with his power base.
Shevardnadze was slavish to his US benefactors. When Yeltsin wanted Shevardnadze to allow Russia to invade Chechnya from Georgia in 1999, Shevardnadze contacted the US administration to find out what his response should be. After September 11th Shevardnadze offered to host US troops in Georgia. In late 2001, at US bidding, Shevardnadze purged the top ranks of his security agencies and installed a more pro-US leadership. He also sought to secure Georgia's admission to NATO.
Shevardnadze was astute enough to know that he could rely on a sympathetic hearing in Washington. The US-backed pipeline being built to pump oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey (for further transportation to the West) is to run through Georgia. The US also looked to the strategically important Georgia for assistance in its "war on terrorism".
On 2 November Shevardnadze stood for re-election as President. In a fair election he would be doomed him to defeat. Shevardnadze resorted again to ballot-rigging, but on a much larger scale than on previous occasions, and it could not be hidden.
In the run-up to the elections the US had switched sides to backing the opposition to Shevardnadze - not because of his politics, but because the level of discontent in Georgia with his rule was such that he was no longer a reliable ally.
Exit polls showed majority support for the anti-Shevardnadze opposition in the elections. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe denounced the polls as falling short of international standards. The US State Department dismissed the official results - which declared Shevardnadze to be the winner - as failing to reflect the will of the Georgian people. Shevardnadze's response was to deny any voting irregularities, to refuse to order an investigation, and to pledge that he would not step down as president.
And so tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in scenes reminiscent of the protests which brought down Milosevic in Serbia - and hardly by coincidence. In the ten days before Shevardnadze's resignation the Georgian independent television network twice broadcast a documentary on the uprising which had brought down Milosevic.
Confronted by mass protests, the capture of the parliamentary building by the protesters, the abandonment of US support, and growing sections of the military and the security services switching to back the opposition, Shevardnadze had no realistic option other than resignation.
Power in Georgia has passed to a triumvirate of opposition leaders (Saakashvili, Zhvania, and Burjanadze). They have promised that Shevardnadze will not be called to account for his wrongdoings. They have promised to maintain their predecessor's pro-US orientation. And they have promised fresh presidential elections for January of next year.
Other than that, their policies are unclear. They have no magic solution for the rampant corruption which is woven into the fabric of Georgian society. Nor do they have the policies needed to challenge and reverse the economic decline of the country and the impoverishment of its population. United in their opposition to Shevardnadze, the members of the triumvirate are divided on most other things.
Only in its commitment to build what Zhvania has called "a new, united, integral Georgian state" does the triumvirate appear to speak as one. The operative word here is "integral".
Under Shevardnadze Georgia was riven by a series of regionally based ethnic conflicts. The regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajaria have been largely autonomous from the Georgian central government in Tbilisi for most of the past ten years. Abkhazia and South Ossetia in particular are virtually independent entities. All three regions enjoy support from the Russian government.
The leaders of the three regions now fear an attempt by Shevardnadze's successors to re-integrate their fiefdoms into Georgia. In response to the downfall of Shevardnadze the Abkhazian authorities put their troops on high alert, a state of emergency was called in Ajaria, and the South Ossetian authorities proposed that the region separate from Georgia and become part of the Russian Federation.
Any conflict between the triumvirate in Tbilisi and the three breakaway regions would drag in Russia. Russia backs the regions and has troops stationed in them. Although glad to see the back of Shevardnadze, the Russian government has denounced his replacements as "young wolves" who are "more honestly aggressive (than Shevardnadze) in their anti-Russian stance."
There is no reason to mourn the downfall of Shevardnadze. There is equally no reason to cheer his successors. Illusions that they will bring about real improvements for the peoples of Georgia will quickly dissipate, while the risk of renewed ethnic conflict remain real.