Georgia: a country in crisis

SUN JOURNAL

Protests: Amid claims of a flawed election, the leader of the former Soviet republic faces growing opposition to his embattled government.

November 15, 2003|By Kathy Lally

All week, protesters have been gathering around-the-clock in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, complaining that the Nov. 2 parliamentary elections were rigged and insisting that President Eduard Shevardnadze annul them.

With their demands unmet yesterday, the crowds, which had ranged from hundreds to several thousand, grew 15,000 strong, and they marched from the Parliament building toward Shevardnadze's office, demanding his resignation. "Go away, go away," they chanted.

Shevardnadze, who refused to meet them, appeared on television to warn of dire consequences. "The present situation of civil confrontation may develop into a civil war," he said.

By last night, most of the marchers had dispersed, but Mikhail Saakashvili, the most visible of the opposition figures, announced a campaign of civil disobedience until Shevardnadze resigns.

Nino Burdzhanadze, another opposition leader, said that even though Shevardnadze had made no concessions, the rally was a success.

"Today, all the world saw that the people - who did not take to the streets when they were penniless, when they had no electricity and heat - came into the streets when their dignity was under attack," she said.

The elections were criticized by the United States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as full of violations and fraud, and the suspicions have galvanized Georgians who have endured a decade of economic collapse, frequent power failures, crime and corruption.

The 75-year-old Shevardnadze's term expires in 2005, and the parliamentary election is considered the start of the campaign to succeed him.

"I'm truly sorry things have come to this point," said Burdzhanadze, who is speaker of parliament and who says the president has wasted his opportunity to reform the country. "The president had the chance to have his name written in gold letters in the history of Georgia."

- From wire reports

Following are excerpts from other reports on the crisis:

Moscow Times editorial

The most ardent of the opposition leaders, former Shevardnadze protege and self-styled nationalist Saakishvili, has tapped into the popular mood of disenfranchisement, saying the president could share Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu's fate if he uses force against demonstrators.

Clearly, a democratic transfer of power is what Georgia desperately needs, if there is to be any hope of the country pulling itself out of the corrupt, cronyist rut it is stuck in and rebuilding a functional state. Power must be wrenched from the hands of the incumbent regime, which has amply demonstrated its bankruptcy. But, it is deeply depressing how widespread the conviction is that if the opposition comes to power, things will be no better - on the contrary, that the new rulers would be too busy stuffing their pockets with loot to even pretend to run the country.

Like Saakishvili, all the other main opposition leaders are disgruntled former members of Shevardnadze's circle, and their political ambitions are justly viewed with profound skepticism.

Shevardnadze's place in history once seemed assured, after his role as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister in ending the Cold War. While he may view himself as a tragic King Lear figure, agonizing over the fate of the nation, most Georgians will no doubt remember him as a corrupt old godfather whose clan bled the country dry.

Andrei Uglanov writing in Argumenty i Fakty, Russian weekly:

It cannot be ruled out that the Georgian president will have to flee to save himself. That is, of course, if the authorities do not admit defeat in the election and the opposition follows through to the end. There is one path of retreat for Mr. Shevardnadze, via the Russian military base in Georgia and on to Moscow. This is the safest route. However, this is the most extreme scenario. Incidentally, some Russian politicians erroneously believe that the worse things are in Georgia, the better for them. Of course, they don't say it out loud.

However, experts believe that if the conflict between Shevardnadze and the opposition goes on, power in the country is most likely to "fall into the lap" of the Ajarian leader, Aslan Abashidze [a Shevardnadze protege]. He will be filling the role of savior and unifier of Georgia.

David L. Phillips, deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in the International Herald Tribune:

Amid the chaos, Shevardnadze has turned to Russia for assistance. ... Moscow still has important economic interests in the Caucasus. To safeguard its stake in the region's energy development, Moscow has sought to influence the selection of pipeline routes transporting oil and gas from the rich Caspian fields as well as from Central Asia. It has taken steps to ... monopolize Georgia's energy sector and acquire ownership of electrical utility systems throughout the Caucasus. ...

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