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Georgia's Savior Steps Off the Stage

November 25, 2003|Rajan Menon

Georgia, a multiethnic land of 5 million people south of the Caucasus mountains and between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, faces a terrible storm, just as it did in 1992.

The man in the middle of the maelstrom is President Eduard A. Shevardnadze. He was hailed as a savior in 1992. Georgia was then an anarchy masquerading as a country, and most Georgians saw the silvered-haired Shevardnadze -- who gained fame as Mikhail S. Gorbachev's foreign minister and, before that, was chief of Georgia's Communist Party -- as their last hope.

At the time, Georgia's Abkhaz republic was in full-scale revolt. Abkhaz separatists, joined by fighters from the North Caucasus, were trouncing the decrepit Georgian army. Another secessionist war raged in South Ossetia, where Georgia's Ossetians dreamed of uniting with their kin in the Russian republic of North Ossetia across the border -- a prospect Russia savored. Georgian refugees poured out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, bringing tales of persecution. Although Ajaria -- in the western region -- was calm, its strongman leader, Aslan Abashidze, ruled the roost in disregard of the central government in Tbilisi.

Private armies ran riot, and Tbilisi was like Dodge City. At the helm -- to the extent that there was one -- for most of 1991 was President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a mentally unstable man who espoused a rabid Georgian nationalism that alienated minority nationalities.

Shevardnadze cleaned up this mess -- to a degree. Order was slowly restored, a Gamsakhurdia battle to regain power was defeated, a new constitution was drafted, political parties and civic organizations mushroomed, elections were held and the economy inched forward.

The outlook brightened considerably once the plan for an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan (championed by the United States to reduce Georgia and Azerbaijan's dependence on Russia) became reality. Construction began last year, with Georgians hoping that the pipeline would generate transit revenue and lure additional foreign investment.

Yet in Shevardnadze's Georgia, corruption was rife, unemployment and poverty were pervasive, social services deteriorated, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained quasi-independent statelets and relations with Russia worsened.

The disputed parliamentary elections of Nov. 2 spawned more upheaval. The leading opposition parties charged vote-rigging and rejected the result, which had given Shevardnadze's Party for a New Georgia the most seats in Parliament.

Mikheil Saakashvili, once a Shevardnadze protege, cried foul, along with Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze, two other opposition leaders. Once the U.S. and Russia questioned the election, Saakashvili summoned his supporters to the streets.

A mob seized the Parliament building while a still-combative Shevardnadze was addressing the deputies. The septuagenarian president fled; Burjanadze, the speaker, proclaimed that she would serve as interim president, pending an election, and urged continued demonstrations to force Shevardnadze's resignation.

Shevardnadze was isolated at home and abroad. Members of his government started defecting. He yielded and resigned.

But the crisis is not over. The worst-case scenario is a civil war that fractures Georgia. That could then set off wider repercussions.

Abkhazia and North Ossetia could drift further into Russia's control, and Georgia's Armenian-populated Javakheti region, where nationalism has been simmering, could tack toward Armenia. The Georgian military's attempts to save the country by force could trigger Russian and Armenian intervention, drawing Turkey into the fracas. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline could revert to a concept, and Russia would become the sole outlet for Azerbaijan's oil exports. Turkey and Azerbaijan would urge U.S. involvement, and Washington -- which has been Georgia's main supporter -- could not sit idle.

Dangers that are less apocalyptic also remain. It is unclear whether, having vanquished Shevardnadze, the opposition parties will cooperate for the greater good. And Abashidze, whose Revival Party received the second-largest bloc of seats in Parliament in the now-discredited election, is not without leverage. Ajaria is his fiefdom, and its constitution provides for an independent military and for the republic's laws to prevail when they conflict with federal legislation.

The U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations should convene the leaders of Georgia's political parties and broker an agreement for new parliamentary and presidential elections that are monitored by the U.N. so that Georgians accept the outcome as fair.

In 1992, Shevardnadze saved the day by arriving; now he has done so again by departing. His exit is an opportunity to ensure that this was another of Georgia's crises, not its last.

Rajan Menon is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

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