Following major political upheaval in Georgia last weekend, what happens next? Will the country transition, peacefully, into a democracy? Or will it descend into civil war and bloodshed? Georgian officials and American scholars discussed these and other issues at a forum sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Monday night in Washington.
Georgia's Supreme Court on Tuesday invalidated the results of the November second parliamentary election.
The election results were a catalyst for a series of events that had culminated Sunday in the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Public anger over allegations of widespread voter fraud brought tens of thousands of Georgians out onto the streets of Tblisi.
The deputy chief of mission at Georgia's embassy in Washington, David Soumbadze, says the demonstrations show the democratic aspirations of the Georgian people.
"In recent years, despite the poverty, the lack of electricity, lack of heat and other hardships, Georgians never hit the streets," he said. "But when it came to defend their freedom and their dignity, they did their best. And also, I have to stress that during the last several days, all demonstrations were very peaceful and very civilized, conducted in a civilized manner. Everything happened without a single drop of blood."
Now that Mr. Shevardnadze has stepped down, what about Georgia's future? Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies professor Charles Fairbanks says he sees two very different possibilities.
"I think there is a possibility of a transition to an imperfect Eastern European democracy, of the Croatian or Slovak or Bulgarian type and probably with many kinds of sudden political reversals, many scandals, revivals of the past," he said.
Professor Fairbanks says another, bleaker, prospect is that Georgia could once again become a failed state, like it was in the early 1990s.
"That could come again. Everybody has rumors about militias that are being set up, just in case it becomes necessary," he said. "And this could end in a kind of civil war, as in the 1990's."
For Georgian politics to proceed in a positive direction, National Institute for Public Policy analyst and November second election observer Eric Miller says the opposition politicians need to work together.
Most prominently, these figures include interim president Nino Burjanadze and main opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili.
"It is very, very important for the domestic opposition to work together. Saakashvili and Burjanadze need to really figure out a compromise here," he said. "I think ideally, it would be nice if one became president and one became speaker of parliament. That would probably be the best solution. But getting to that point could be rather challenging."
With all the difficulties lying ahead, the chairman of Johns Hopkins University's Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Professor Frederick Starr, says it is too early to be optimistic.
"I would be very much concerned at this moment about euphoria. We have heard some sober things here," he said. "Here is a country that's been through a dramatic change of power. It was without bloodshed, but it was done on the streets. It was not done through any legitimate process."
Professor Starr says Georgia will need outside help to prevent the situation from "tumbling out of control."
He said, "It seems to me this requires the clearest understanding among all the surrounding and interested major powers. And, does that exist yet? Absolutely not. And therefore, this is a far, far more potentially dangerous downside than one might sense as we acknowledge, as we should, the many positive and impressive elements in this that we hope will ripen and survive elections at the presidential and parliamentary levels."
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov personally played a key role in negotiating Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell was in touch with both Mr. Shevardnadze and his interim successor by telephone.
Georgia's strategic importance, both to the United States and neighboring Russia, belies its population of five million people. Moscow has military units stationed in the country, while U.S. troops are training Georgian forces to fight terrorists.
Meanwhile, major oil and gas pipelines are being built through Georgia. And analysts say there are fears a civil war there could spread instability throughout the Caucasus region.