From Wed Dec 3 19:15:16 2003
Date: Mon, 24 Nov 2003 22:22:11 -0600 (CST)
Subject: Outside Influences: Uncle Sham in Georgia
Article: 168976
To: undisclosed-recipients: ;,14065,1092532,00.html

Outside influences

The Guardian, Tuesday 25 November 2003

Georgia's citizens, or at least those who support the putsch that has unseated Eduard Shevardnadze, should enjoy their moment while they can. The sense of liberation, even of revolution, that overtook the capital, Tbilisi, at the weekend may be short-lived. Mr Shevardnadze had certainly become part of Georgia's problem rather than, as he promised in 1992, part of the solution. The writing had been on the wall for him for some time; and clumsy attempts to steal this month's parliamentary elections highlighted the shredding legitimacy of his presidency. It is a pity that Mr Shevardnadze's long and sometimes brilliant career should end in disgrace. It is to his credit that when he belatedly realised the game was up, he had the courage and sense to stand aside, to help avoid bloodshed.

Yet Mr Shevardnadze's departure does not mean Georgia's difficulties are at an end. Far from it. Its more fundamental problems now present an enormous challenge to his untried, divided would-be successors, with public expectations running unrealistically high. A basic dilemma centres on Georgia's territorial integrity and continuing foreign meddling in its affairs. Russia has never fully accepted Georgian independence, maintaining military bases there and sustaining pro-Moscow separatists and rebels. Repeatedly clashing with Mr Shevardnadze over Chechnya, Russia's hostility severely handicapped Georgia's economic and political development. Indeed, clan-based administrations in the Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adzharia regions largely reject the central government's writ, whoever is in charge.

After Mr Shevardnadze's resignation, Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, hurried from Tbilisi to meet Moscow's ally in Adzharia, Aslan Abashidze. He may have been offering reassurance. But like influential elements in Vladimir Putin's increasingly self-assertive government, Mr Abashidze firmly opposes the interim Georgian leadership's pro-American, pro-EU, pro-Nato stance and has declared an emergency in his territory. This is one reason why Georgia's so-called velvet revolution could easily morph into something rather rougher.

Mr Shevardnadze's overthrow might also be viewed as a US-engineered coup, as “soft power” regime change on the Serbian model. 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 event, the US took the lead in denouncing the election results and encouraging opposition protests. The US ambassador, Richard Miles, gave an extraordinarily undiplomatic interview. “We are disappointed at the slow pace of reform in Georgia,” he said. “We would like to see stronger leadership and faster progress.” Was this a green light? For in retrospect it now appears that the US pulled the rug from under Mr Shevardnadze, ostensibly for the very best of democratic reasons, and opened the way to a more biddable leadership. Mr Putin has indicated acquiescence if a new Georgian government can satisfy Russia's security and other concerns. But given the stakes, and a long history of double-dealing in the Caucasus, that is a very big “if”.