Eduard Shevardnadze has done his country of Georgia one last, important service-resigning as president. While the resignation avoided the bloodshed of the use of force against demonstrators in the streets, it leaves the country in a volatile situation, which the United States can help to stabilize.
Besieged by his handpicked successors-turned-opposition leaders, abandoned by his soldiers and policemen, Shevardnadze resigned the Georgian presidency rather than giving an order to shoot his own people.
Shevardnadze rose in the ranks of the Soviet Communist Party since joining in 1948 at the height of Stalin's rule and then played a key role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The question now is, what's next?
Georgia conducted badly flawed parliamentary elections on November 2, 2003. International observers reported massive fraud, and the U.S. State Department issued a stern rebuke of the vote counting procedures. The 1999 parliamentary elections had been equally faulty. The team that eased Shevardnadze out of power used the populace's frustration with that election fraud and the accumulated dissatisfaction with the old regime as a fulcrum to topple Shevardnadze.
The first post-post-Soviet transition team in Georgia is decidedly pro-Western:
- The most popular politician in Georgia is Columbia-educated former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili (35);
- The current President pro-tem (until the elections, which will take place in early January 2004) is the former Speaker of the Parliament Nino Burdjanadze (39);
- Former Parliamentary Speaker Zurab Zhvania (40).
All of these leaders are well-known faces in Washington: they are bright, English speaking, and pro-American. However, the economic and security challenges before the new leadership are more difficult to surmount than the 18,000 feet mountain snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus.
Shevardnadze leaves behind a number of tough problems that will be difficult for his young successors to solve. The economic and security situation is depressing, and the population is falling. Three autonomous republics-coastal Abkhazia and Adjara and the mountainous South Ossetia-are in various stages of secession from the central government in Tbilisi. The separatists are supported by the Russian government and military, who still have not evacuated four Georgian military bases, despite a 1999 decision by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit that they do so.
Georgia's economic performance remains anemic, with GDP growth around 2 percent per year from 1997-2002, official unemployment over 17 percent, and underemployment even higher. Hundreds of thousands have left the country for neighboring Russia or greener pastures in the West. Corruption is rampant, and Shevardnadze's relatives and cronies control the choicest morsels of the economy. Saakashvili's earlier efforts to fight corruption and to reform the judiciary and the State Prosecutor's office were stalled.
Armed militias, who in the past contributed to the country's chaos and fought Shevardnadze, as well as the autocratic and pro-Russian leader of Adjara, Aslan Abashidze (a former nemesis of Shevardnadze), have already voiced opposition to the new leadership. And while the Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov mediated between Shevardnadze and the opposition, Russia is cautious about the emerging government, which many in Moscow view as pro-American. The geopolitics of Georgia's future will be tough for Washington to manage.
Georgia, with its Christian, largely pro-Western population, was an independent kingdom in the Middle Ages and has dreamt of freedom ever since losing it to a succession of imperial masters, including the Ottomans, Persians and Russians. The country wants to be part of the Euro-Atlantic zone and is located between Russia and Turkey and in proximity to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. Georgia controls land access to the oil riches of the Caspian, and is a transit country for the Main Export Baku-Ceyhan Pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey, which will be completed by 2005.
What the United States
U.S. support of Georgian independence is bipartisan. Since 1992, the Clinton and Bush Administrations expended as much as $1 billion in assistance. Georgia also received IMF and World Bank credits, loans, and technical assistance. To keep Georgia free and democratic, and to ensure the stability of the Southern Caucasus, the United States should:
Ensure that Eduard Shevardnadze and his family are treated with dignity and that he is allowed an honorable retirement. He should be guaranteed immunity from criminal prosecution.
Enhance democratic development and the rule of law, including the provision of technical assistance for anti-corruption measures and the development of institutions of the law and law enforcement.
Support new parliamentary and presidential elections, including sending U.S. observers for OSCE missions.
Boost thetrain-and-equip program, administered by the Pentagon, to institutionalize Georgian anti-terrorist capabilities.
Help restore the territorial integrity of Georgia by maintaining dialogue with all local parties and Moscow and promote the reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, by assisting in the development of cultural autonomy models for them, as well as the return of Adjara back under Tbilisi's full control.
The United States should acknowledge the historic role Eduard Shevardnadze played in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, while supporting the new Georgian democratic leadership. Beyond that, it should renew efforts to ensure Georgia that it can open a new page in its history by strengthening democracy, sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, and economic reforms.