Jones in The Globe and Mail on the Republic of Georgia Crisis

Thursday, November 27, 2003 - 12:00

This article ran in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Wednesday, November 26, 2003.

Shevardnadze was a Cold War hero who found himself in hot water for trying to play politics with both the U.S. and Russia, says Russian studies professor Stephen Jones

Eduard Shevardnadze's career ended after more than three decades at the pinnacle of power in both the Soviet Union and in his home republic of Georgia. Ousted from the presidency of Georgia by a popular revolt that rose up after falsified parliamentary elections, Mr. Shevardnadze, a consummate political manipulator who had survived two assassination attempts, believed he was invincible. Yet, when he was hustled out of the Georgian parliament by his bodyguards following a storming of the legislative chamber by outraged demonstrators on the weekend, his authority crumbled. The street had finally caught up with him.

Mr. Shevardnadze, 75, a onetime darling of the West who had helped end the Cold War peacefully, was a dream-come-true figure in the Medici-like intrigues of Georgian high politics, but for years, he had forgotten the Georgian people and underestimated their deep frustration with poverty and corruption. Isolated in the towering state chancellery just off the capital's main thoroughfare, and protected by a U.S.-trained security force, Mr. Shevardnadze was deceived by his own sense of immunity.

He made further misjudgments. First, he believed he could count on the United States, a traditional ally, for support. But the U.S. government, in a fit of political honesty that many wish it would display elsewhere, condemned the Nov. 2 Georgian parliamentary elections as illegitimate. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, despite Mr. Shevardnadze's request for intervention, refused to come to the president's rescue. The United States had grown tired of Mr. Shevardnadze's intrigues with Russia, a tactic that the Georgian president had used successfully in the past to gain U.S. attention, but which, in the last few months, had led to significant Russian economic and political gains in Georgia -- a development which the United States perceived as a threat to its interests. The United States no longer believed Mr. Shevardnadze was the best man for securing the precious pipelines that will bring oil from Central Asia across Georgian territory to thirsty Western markets.

Mr. Shevardnadze first returned to his own devastated country in March, 1992, after a violent coup against a former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Then, Western leaders applauded Mr. Shevardnadze, regarding him as a democratic pro-Western reformer they hoped would introduce stability and democracy to Georgia and open up the country to foreign investment. The United States provided millions of dollars to sustain Mr. Shevardnadze's pro-Western policies, but his government's mismanagement over the last few years led to economic chaos, mass impoverishment of the population and endemic corruption that invaded every sphere of the state and economy.

Mr. Shevardnadze also misjudged his own country. The Georgia of 2003 is not like that of 1992, when Mr. Shevardnadze was recalled to rescue an exhausted population looking for stability and salvation. Georgian society has moved on, and is now more democratic, more politically sophisticated and better organized. Georgia's media had also become powerful and professional.

Finally, Mr. Shevardnadze miscalculated the power of the opposition. Mr. Shevardnadze had always reigned without serious rivals. But now he faced an effective and ambitious leader: the emphatically pro-Western Mikhail Saakashvili. Young (35), charismatic and honest, he drew his support not from groups within the chancellery, but from the street. He had visited Serbia to learn from the democratic opposition how to overthrow entrenched leaders. His skillful tactics throughout November showed it was a lesson well learned.

Despite the uncertainties and instabilities the premature removal of their president will bring, Georgians have demonstrated their pro-Western sentiments and insist on a democratic state. November, 2003, was a popular revolution and a triumph for a population that has suffered under an incompetent government unable to pay salaries or pensions. Georgia's revolution has brought, for now, the corrupt former Soviet nomenclature to heel. But Georgia's future remains bleak. The economy is so infested with corruption that the Georgian state has the distinction of having one of the lowest tax bases as a proportion of GDP in the world. Sixty per cent of its population lives on the poverty line and as many as a million people -- 20 per cent of its total population -- have fled to seek a decent living elsewhere. The new pro-Western victors have come to power in a country where domestic jolts have frequently led to bloodshed. Georgia has no control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two secessionist regions within the country that are defended by Russian might.

Under its new pro-Western leadership, Georgian relations with Russia, despite the positive intervention of Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in the bloodless transfer of power to the opposition, are likely to worsen. Russian peacekeepers occupy both Abkhazia and Ossetia, and have the power to press secessionists' buttons. They defend Aslan Abashidze, the authoritarian guardian of the mini fief of Adzhana, an autonomous republic within Georgia. The latter has already declared a state of emergency in his autonomous republic and sealed his borders.

The hopes and dangers for Georgians are delicately interlaced. The overthrow of Mr. Shevardnadze has created extraordinary opportunities. The revolt is a sign for others suffering under repressive regimes in the former Soviet Union that all is not lost. At best, the Georgian revolt could set off, as in 1989, a series of rebellions against authoritarian leaders. It is an opportunity for Georgia to end the stalemate of the last 10 years with its rebellious ethnic minorities.

It means, too, that Georgia may gain genuine sovereignty, remove the Russian military bases that have constrained the country's independence and renew its relationship with the United States. Georgia has declared its intention to join NATO.

Finally, it presents Georgia's leaders with one more chance to show that democracy can work in troubled post-Soviet states.

Yet, the dangers are immediate and overwhelming. The new leadership is expecting a possibly violent reaction from the corrupt and powerful elites it has removed, and Russia, which has suffered an enormous blow to its power and influence in the region, may take the opportunity to destabilize Georgia.

The West and the United States can play a positive role in the transition by strongly supporting the new leadership and making it clear to Russia that it should not interfere. Despite the ignominy of Mr. Shevardnadze's failure, this is perhaps one of his better moments. He left peacefully. He helped create a society with the courage and skill to take power into its own hands. He let grass-roots democracy grow. In this sense, the peaceful transfer of power was to his credit, too. Nor can his last years eradicate the vital role he played in keeping Georgia afloat in the midst of civil and secessionist wars. But trained in Soviet methods and style, he simply could not bring Georgia that last mile to a stable and working democracy.

Stephen Jones, a professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Mount Holyoke College, is now completing his two-volume work Georgian Social Democracy: In Opposition and Power.

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