Black Sea triumph

May 07, 2004

THERE IS SURPRISING and heartening news to report from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. That little Caucasian nation, which experienced a peaceful democratic revolution last fall, was struggling with a crisis over Adzharia, a defiant coastal region led by a man who seemed determined to sever its ties with the rest of the country. On Tuesday, it looked as though Georgia was headed for a violent showdown - one that neighboring Russia seemed prepared both to foment and exploit. But yesterday, faced with demonstrations against him by his own people, the local strongman fled to Moscow. He left behind signs of jubilation.

The American-educated president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, arrived in Batumi, Adzharia's capital, and announced to the happy crowds that the Georgian revolution had taken its next big step forward. It's an event that the world should welcome.

To be crass (but realistic): Georgia provides the West with its only means of gaining access to Caspian Sea oil while avoiding Iran or Russia. An oil pipeline that connects the Caspian with the Black Sea crosses Adzharia and terminates (as of now) in Batumi. Since the Soviet crackup in 1991, Russia has looked unfavorably on Georgian independence, and that only intensified with the rise of Mr. Saakashvili. Moscow barely bothered to disguise its interest in stirring up trouble in Adzharia (where it maintains an army base despite having agreed to close it) and extending support to Adzharia's ruler, Aslan Abashidze.

Last weekend, Mr. Abashidze had railroad bridges leading into Adzharia from the rest of Georgia blown up. If he had succeeded in secession, it would have placed Georgia at the mercy of Russia and given the Kremlin control over the Caspian oil spigot. Russia, of course, is a nominal ally of the United States and Western Europe. The question of world access to Caspian oil could perhaps have been resolved. But the damage to Georgia, to peace and progress in the Caucasus and to the greater region surrounding it, would have been immense.

War, disunion and anarchy have become Caucasian staples, in a part of the world that is in fact closer to Baghdad than to Moscow. The flight of Mr. Abashidze is a great relief, and gives a small but vital country the chance to consolidate its tentative gains. Mr. Saakashvili has shown occasional signs of intemperance since rising to power; his victory in Adzharia should give him the courage of his democratic convictions.

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