The removal-by-protest of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze on Nov. 23 was hailed as a peaceful and bloodless revolution in the purest spirit of democracy. The protests, involving many thousands of Georgians, were sparked by the country’s Nov. 2 elections, which were derided by national and international observers as rigged; but people-power was a long time coming for a country wracked by economic and social problems. Shevardnadze resigned after the military refused to respond to his declaration that the country was in a state of emergency.
But the aftermath of the so-called “velvet revolution” may not be quite so smooth. The overthrow of Shevardnadze upsets a delicate balance of interests between Russia, Georgia and the U.S, leaving the U.S. and Russia vying for power over the embattled region.
The Boston Globe hails the change as an important move toward democracy:
“What is being achieved is a change in Georgian society toward the rule of law, democratic values, and citizen participation. Two years ago a government security agency raid on the independent Rustavi II television station brought thousands of people into the streets, peacefully. This time, the forces seeking democracy and free and fair elections have again prevailed without the loss of blood as the army and police stood aside as peaceful demonstrators walked into parliament.”
The London Guardian agrees that the popular uprising is especially influential because of the instability in the area:
“However uncertain Georgia’s challenged future is, it is almost impossible to underestimate its importance. It spans the Caucuses, almost bridging the Caspian and the Black Seas. It is the only Orthodox Christian state in a region beset by volatile Muslim enclaves and repressive rulers. It borders the bloody and endless mess of Chechnya. And, above all, it is the only one of the former Soviet states to have enacted a bloodless revolution in defence of its democratic rights.”
New elections are set for January 4th, with many experts predicting that U.S.-backed opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili will emerge as the country’s new president. In the meantime, the provisional government says it is committed to streamlining Georgia’s government agencies to prevent initiatives from stalling “in a thick forest of bureaucracy” and eliminating corruption. Zurab Zhvania, Georgia’s interim state minister said, “Ahead of us will be a radical reorganization of the old, corrupt system. We will create a new style of government. After the January 4 election … this reform will become irreversible.”
The task ahead for Georgia won’t be easy, as the ability to maintain independence is complicated by the vested interests of both Russia and the United States. Georgia has a long and complex relationship with Russia. To be sure, Russia will be hard-pressed to relinquish what influence it has over Georgia, which borders on Chechnya and which was formerly a Soviet republic. In addition, a new pipeline project, which will run through Georgia, threatens to challenge Russia’s grip on gas and oil transport to the west. Russia’s long history with the region also contributes to its reluctance fully to remove troops currently stationed in the strategically valuable country, despite pressure from the U.S. and Georgia.
Georgia is keen to get the Russians out; whether it gets its wish is another matter. Last week, Moscow hosted meetings with the leaders of three separatist regions within Georgia, two of which – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – want to leave Georgia altogether and become part of Russia. Interim President Nino Burdzhanadze accused Russia on Monday of interfering in Georgia’s domestic politics and urged Moscow to move away from its Soviet-era
“Big Brother” meddling.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell issued a warning to Russia that the rebel territories should not be supported:
“The international community should do everything possible to support Georgia’s territorial integrity throughout and beyond the election process. No support should be given to breakaway elements seeking to weaken Georgia’s territorial integrity. “
While the U.S. is calling on Russia to essentially back off, it appears that the U.S. has interests of its own in the region. At stake is a $2.9 billion pipeline that will run from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey. The pipeline, currently under construction, is financed by Western oil companies and will counter the present Russia monopoly of oil transport from the Caspian basin to the West.
The Guardian explains why the U.S. is so invested in Georgia :
“Like Moscow, Washington’s interest is geostrategic and commercial, focused in particular on the new BP trans-Georgian oil pipeline linking the Caspian basin with the west (and, significantly, bypassing Russia and Iran). US confidence in a weakened Mr Shevardnadze had long been falling. A string of very senior envoys was sent to warn him this summer that ever crucial diplomatic and financial backing might suffer if he tried to block the political evolution the US deemed essential to protect its interests. Chief among these envoys was the ex-secretary of state, Texas oilman and Bush family intimate, James Baker. Simultaneously, Washington was grooming possible replacements, such as the US-educated opposition leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, and the pro-western parliamentarian, Nino Burdzhanadze.”
In the crosshairs of two major powers, Georgia may have a difficult time asserting its autonomy. U.S. favor played a key role in the power politics of Georgia. The U.S., which supported the deposed president for many years, clearly undermined him towards the end. Both Russia and the U.S. accuse each other of interference, but time will tell how well Georgia is able to navigate its own way.