- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

A combination of interests converged over the weekend in Georgia, leading President Eduard Shevardnadze to resign. The will of the Georgian people was the most prominent of these forces, and it was expressed more energetically than key opposition leaders had expected.

Allegations of widespread fraud in Georgia’s Nov. 2 parliamentary elections led to civil revolt. On Saturday, opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili and a large group of protesters broke into parliament, forcing Mr. Shevardnadze to the session hall where he was speaking. Parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, a pro-Western lawyer, is Georgia’s acting president, in keeping with that country’s constitution. New elections must be held within 45 days. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Sunday backed Mrs. Burdzhanadze and called Mr. Shevardnadze to thank him for bowing out gracefully.

Georgia is regarded as strategically important to the United States, Europe and Russia. European and U.S. energy companies are constructing an oil pipeline that transits through Georgia and brings oil from the Caspian Sea area through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea. The pipeline will be an important energy source for Europe, and it is a part of President Bush’s policy of diversifying global energy sources. Georgia has also been a significant counterterror partner for the United States and has cooperated with U.S.-led nonproliferation efforts to secure nuclear components from former Soviet states.

Under Mr. Shevardnadze’s rule, Moscow wielded significant influence in Georgia, and it established military bases there. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also keenly concerned about the porous border between Georgia and Chechnya, and the ability of Chechen militants to evade the Russian military by crossing the border. During Mr. Shevardnadze’s rule, the Russian military would occasionally make incursions into Georgian territory as long is it didn’t attract too much international attention. A new Georgian leader with more independence from Moscow may be less willing to tolerate such campaigns.

The Russians will warily watch developments in Georgia. The main opposition leaders are regarded as more closely aligned with the West and the United States than Mr. Shevardnadze was. But Russia’s foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, who had tried to mediate a compromise between Mr. Shevardnadze and opposition forces, suggested Moscow was willing to see the president resign in order to avert chaos.

Georgia’s new ruler will face formidable challenges. The country is beset by severe economic woes, weak public institutions and four rebellious provinces, one of which the central government has completely lost control over. Opposition leaders have accurately described Mr. Shevardnadze’s shortcomings, but have yet to offer viable policy alternatives. If Georgia’s new leader is unable to keep order, then the many parties vying for influence in that country will suffer economic and strategic consequences.

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