The former Soviet Republic of Georgia has begun a new political era after recent protests culminated in a dramatic yet peaceful end of President Eduard Shevardnadze's rule. He resigned in the face of widespread corruption, misrule and alleged rigging of a November 2nd parliamentary election. Opposition leaders have become the architects of the nation's next government and face a euphoric yet poverty-stricken Georgian population. VOA's Brent Hurd spoke with opposition leaders and analysts about Georgia at an historic crossroads.
It is being called a revolution of roses. After more than three weeks of massive protests, Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze announced he was stepping down on November 23. He was facing a threat from opposition leaders that protesters were prepared to march on his residence. He ended almost three decades of prominence on the Georgian and Soviet politic stage with this declaration: “I see that this could not have ended bloodlessly. I have never betrayed my country, so it's better that the president resigns." News of Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation ricocheted through the streets, sending fireworks into the air and tens of thousands of cheering Georgians dancing into the early morning. They were celebrating both a new beginning and the fact that no blood had been spilled during these tense days. Georgia had already suffered civil wars and separatist movements since gaining independence in 1992. This time, peace prevailed. Analysts say the situation could have quickly turned violent but opposition leaders continually called on protesters for restraint.
The climax of the protests occurred when tens of thousands marched to the parliament the day before President Shevardnadze resigned. Unexpectedly, government troops guarding the building stepped aside and let the protesters into the parliament.
A prominent opposition leader and former chairman of the Georgian Parliament, Zurab Zhvania, said the decision by the military to join the opposition was crucial. "The real turning point came on the early afternoon of Sunday, November 23 when different units of armed forces moved to a point of protesting against President Shevardnadze,” he said. “Then the chief of police of Tbilisi made the declaration that he would obey the orders of the interim president Nino Burdzhanadze - the chairperson of the parliament who was one of the leaders of this protest movement. By late afternoon President Shevardnadze realized the entire country was against him."
The bloodless overthrow was set in motion by outrage over a parliamentary election earlier this month. President Shevardnadze's party was declared the winner. But various analyses indicated the opposition was the clear victor. Zeyno Baran, Director of International Security and Energy Programs at the Nixon Center in Washington, said Georgia's vibrant free media and non-governmental organizations helped expose this glaring discrepancy. "There were two separate independent sources of information that came with the same results,” she said. “If it was just the exit polls, one could say it was not true or vice versa. But having those two things out gave a lot of moral support to the opposition party that truth was on their side."
Analysts say the election controversy was merely the spark of the upheaval. The deeper root of Mr. Shevardnadze's downfall was widespread corruption that has contributed to the impoverishment of most of Georgia's five million people. Zeyno Baran said this corruption was all too apparent. "One of the things that really prevented President Shevardnadze to go forward was that a lot of the people that surrounded him were corrupt themselves. One of the problems of Georgia is that there has been a tremendous transparency but no accountability. Almost everyone in the streets is reading the newspaper watching television and knew which minister is corrupt and what government officials are doing what but nothing was ever done."
Yet opposition leaders have praised what they called a wise and moral decision by Mr. Shevardnadze to step down a year and a half before his term was due to end. Many of his opponents are former allies of the ex-president. The main opposition leader, 35-year-old Makhail Saakashvili, is a American-educated lawyer and former Georgian justice minister known for his anti-corruption campaigns. He plans to run for president in the scheduled January elections.
Professor Charles King of Georgetown University specializes in the Balkan and Caucasus regions. He warns of the tasks ahead to revive the fortunes of this hardy, mountainous nation. "Whoever is elected president is going to face exactly the same kind of structural problems that President Shevardnadze faced. This is now kind of a honeymoon period. The new president will have to deal with the same kind of problems - tough, endemic corruption, the weakness of the state institutions and territorial separatism, and that is going to be a full plate for even the most committed reformer. Even having a leader who is younger, pro-western, committed to democracy and committed to real reform is going to come up against a great deal of opposition from people who have spent the last decade benefiting from having a very weak central government."
The international community has praised the peaceful transition. Both the United States and Russia have been active behind the scenes in Georgia, fearing that civil war could destabilize the entire Caucasus region. The U.S. government spent more than a billion dollars over the last decade to build a civil society in Georgia. American and international organizations helped the country develop a multiparty political system.
The United States has strategic interests in oil resources in the nearby Caspian Sea where it is building an oil pipeline that will send 50-million tons of oil each year to the Mediterranean through Georgia and Turkey. In addition, the U.S. military is spending tens of millions of dollars to train Georgian soldiers to fight terrorism.
Georgia's relationship with Russia has been rocky through the last decade. Georgia's breakaway territories have received aid and support from the Russians, further straining relations. Recently, a leader of an autonomous region with close ties to Russia said he would defy any orders from the interim government in Tbilisi.
Analysts note a positive development, however. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov helped find a peaceful solution after he mediated talks between embattled President Shevardnadze and opposition leaders at the height of the crisis. Zeyno Baran of the Nixon center says Russians have an enduring interest in Georgia because of its location. "They can not afford to have one more instability on their southern border in addition to Chechnya. I would say the Russian policy at this point is for Georgia to be a state that is not very strong so that it will be politically and economically dependent to Russia, but also not a Georgia that becomes a failed state because then it creates problems for Russia." At this moment, Georgians at home and abroad are not dwelling on troubles. Theirs is a cloudless sky. About 50 gathered to celebrate the peaceful outcome at a church in Washington. They expressed amazement that Mr. Shervardnadze left office on the day of Saint George - the patron saint of Georgia. Levan Mikeladze, the Georgian ambassador to Canada, the United States and Mexico, said “we thank Saint George for helping us to avoid the bloodshed and confrontation and would like to pray for our happy future in the times ahead."
And Georgians ask Saint George to continue to guide them in the aftermath of their revolution of roses.