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Georgian Transition: Opportunity for US-Russian Cooperation or Competition?

The peaceful change of government in Georgia has been an occasion for U.S.-Russian cooperation. But analysts in Moscow say the former Soviet republic will continue to also be an arena for U.S.-Russian competition.

In public, Russian leaders reacted with caution to the peaceful ouster of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze on Sunday, in what has now been labeled the Rose Revolution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was concerned that the transfer of power in Georgia occurred under the threat of the use of force. But both Russia and the United States helped convince Mr. Shevardnadze he had no choice but to yield to popular demands that he step down.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov played a key role by flying to Georgia on Saturday, after thousands of opposition supporters seized the parliament building and forced Mr. Shevardnadze to flee to his residence.

Mr. Ivanov, who is half Georgian by birth and spoke to the assembled opposition crowd in Georgian, then engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the embattled president and opposition leaders.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was in touch with Mr. Ivanov by telephone as his mediation mission progressed.

Analysts say both the United States and Russia feared that if Georgia had a civil war, it could have created instability throughout the Caucasus region.

The director of the Moscow-based Institute for Political Studies, Sergei Markov says the two countries came together to defuse a potentially explosive situation.

"Yes, I think both Russia and the United States can find common interests, common position in Georgia," he said. "Russia is very much interested in political stability in Georgia. Because, if unstable, Georgia can mean hundreds of thousands of refugees to the Russian territory. Unstable Georgia, meaning that its territory can be taken by international terrorists who will prepare attacks on Russian territory, against Russian citizens."

Mr. Markov says that from the U.S. point of view, Georgia is important to the global war on terror, and for the new oil and gas pipelines under construction through its territory. A contingent of U.S. military advisers has been in Georgia for some time assisting in counter-terrorism training, while western companies work on the pipelines linking the energy-rich Caspian Sea region with the Mediterranean coast.

Russia has long considered Georgia part of its sphere of influence, and is uneasy seeing U.S. troops deployed there. But it also strongly criticized Mr. Shevardnadze for failing to expel Chechen rebel fighters, who have sometimes sought refuge in Georgia. Russia is also not pleased that the new pipelines will give the West access to the Caspian Sea oil and gas, without requiring the crucial commodities to go through Russia.

Analyst Sergei Markov also says many Russians are concerned about key Georgian opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, who they fear may be an anti-ethnic ultra-nationalist like Russia's own politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

"We are very concerned that radical nationalists can come to power," he said. "Mikhail Saakashvili, most popular Georgian politician now, he is well known as some kind of Georgian Zhirinovsky."

But most observers say the American-educated Mr. Saakashvili is really more pro-Western than nationalist. But that may trouble Kremlin leaders even more. Georgia's interim President Nino Burjanadze has indicated she will look to the international community for help in solving Georgia's economic crisis.

On Sunday, Mr. Saakashvili praised Foreign Minister Ivanov for his mediation efforts. His comments may bode well for relations with Russia, even as he and other likely new Georgian leaders look West at the same time.