- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is in the midst of a political crisis. The country’s recent parliamentary elections were plagued by massive voter fraud and ballot stuffing. The result is that the capital, Tbilisi, has been rocked by widespread demonstrations, demanding that President Eduard Shevardnadze step down from power.

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement that “mismanagement and fraud” from the election “denied many Georgian citizens their constitutional right to vote.”

Official election results claim Mr. Shevardnadze’s For a New Georgia bloc had the most support of any single party with 25 percent of the vote.

He was followed closely by the opposition National Movement bloc, led by reformer Mikhail Saakashvili, which won nearly 24 percent.

The pro-democracy protesters, however, rightly point out that had Mr. Shevardnadze’s cronies not rigged the election results, his center-left party would have been trounced. The former Soviet foreign minister has seen his popularity plummet in recent years.

Once the darling of Western liberals, who praised him and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for being the architects of perestroika, Mr. Shevardnadze gradually has lost credibility with both Georgians and the international community. His administration has been characterized by pervasive corruption, incompetence and economic mismanagement.

He assumed power in 1992, shortly after Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union. The Gorbachev protege vowed to transform his nation into a Western-style democracy with a market economy. Instead, Mr. Shevardnadze has tolerated and even encouraged his political underlings to plunder public assets in shady privatization deals. His administration has engaged in widespread bribery and smuggling, enriching oligarchs who in return pledge their loyality to the Georgian autocrat.

The result is that economic reforms have been derailed. Georgia, once the richest of the Soviet republics, is now mired in poverty and crime. The average salary is roughly $50 a month, unemployment is high and the country is saddled with a crippling public debt. The tax system is inefficient and backward, leaving the state treasury without much-needed revenues. Foreign investment is almost nonexistent.

The fact that a tiny nation of 5.6 million in the Caucasus is on the verge of a political civil war and economic disintegration would normally not be of concern to policymakers in Washington. However, Georgia is of vital geopolitical importance to the United States for one major reason: oil. The country is the key transit point for a U.S.-backed pipeline that will export Caspian Sea oil to world markets.

Due to be completed in 2005, the pipeline project is expected to provide a steady and cheap flow of oil to Western economies for the next several decades. This is why Russia has taken a very eager interest not only in the pipeline but in Georgia’s internal affairs. Moscow has made no secret it views Tbilisi as falling under Russia’s sphere of dominance.

The Russian military has supported secessionist insurgencies in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow refuses to remove its Soviet-era army bases from the country. Russian forces regularly violate Georgia’s territorial sovereignty by launching air strikes on supposed “terrorist” Chechen camps — although there is little evidence such camps exist.

Russia’s long-term goal is to destabilize Georgia, thereby bringing the small nation within Moscow’s orbit so it can maintain an economic stranglehold on the oil pipeline. The fall of Georgia to the Russian camp would be a devastating blow to America’s strategic interests.

Hence, the Bush administration needs to act quickly and decisively to help bring calm to the streets of Tbilisi. The State Department should drop its support for Mr. Shevardnadze, and demand that his regime hold free and fair elections.

His term in office is set to expire in 2005 and he is legally prohibited from running again. Mr. Shevardnadze is hoping that, by keeping his allies in power, he will be able to protect himself and his family from prosecution for his numerous misdeeds. Mr. Shevardnadze’s criminal behavior should not go unpunished. The administration needs to reach out to Georgia’s fractious reformist opposition, urging them to coalesce around a leader committed to genuine reform and political accountability.

For years, the West has lavished massive foreign aid on Mr. Shevardnadze’s corrupt regime. Rather than helping ordinary Georgians, most of the money has been siphoned off by government officials and used to prop up Mr. Shevardnadze’s failed policies.

Washington should now insist that financial assistance be tied to concrete steps taken by Tbilisi toward necessary reforms such as cleaning up corruption, modernizing the tax system and implementing Western-style election laws. Moreover, the United States and the European Union need to forge a comprehensive economic revitalization package that will entice Abkhazia and South Ossetia to remain semi-autonomous regions within a Georgian federal state.

The stakes could not be higher. A stable and prosperous Georgia is essential to curtailing Great Russian imperialism and preserving the West’s influence in the oil-rich Caucasus. Mr. Shevardnadze has shown himself to be not only an old-style communist thug, but an ineffective one at that. His misrule has left his nation in tatters. The sooner he goes, the better.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is assistant national editor at The Washington Times.

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