- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The good news for the people of former Soviet Georgia is that their little Caucasus republic has advanced 160 years in political development in only a decade. The bad news is they still live in a violent, complex neighborhood, cursed with national borders that were expressly designed not to work.

Georgia’s “velvet revolution” Saturday toppled veteran President Edward Shevardnadze, who has dominated its politics for most of the past 30 years, with no loss of life and in an impressive example of national consensus exercised through massive demonstrations. Further, Nino Burdzhanadze, the nation’s young new leader for the next 45 days, has hit the ground running, emphasizing close, good ties with Russia and seeking renewed close relations with the Untied States.

Mrs. Burdzhanadze, a 39-year-old lawyer is a far cry from Mr. Shevardnadze, a tough, shrewd cynical old powerbroker who ran Georgia as his private fiefdom on behalf of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev as long ago as the 1970s. She is an even farther cry from Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s leader after it achieved independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Mr. Gamsakhurdia appeared a throwback, not to the Soviet or even the czarist era, but to the romantic and ineffectual European liberal revolutionaries of the 1830s. He gave long, flowery speeches about liberty while stamping out every minor criticism of his government. But he did not know how to make the trains run in time, or even at all. He gave the impression of sliding into fascism, without even realizing it, but his fascism was not threatening because he could not even do that well. His elite troop could not goose-step on time; they always fell out of step.

Mr. Shevardnadze was an improvement on this. Arguably, he brought Georgia back to the cynical, empty Brezhnev era of the 1960s and ‘70s. But the revolution that toppled him so quickly, totally and bloodlessly Saturday appeared a dream rerun of Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” in 1989.

Does that mean Georgia, the most remote Christian European outpost in the wilds of the Caucasus, maintaining its proud heritage and identity through 1,200 years of being a Christian island in an Islamic sea, can look forward to a democratic, stable and prosperous future at last?

Left to itself, the answer might well be “Yes.” The Georgian people have certainly shown an enthusiastic commitment for restoring their long-desired close ties with Western Europe and the United States. But it is still likely to be easier said than done.

First, Mrs. Burdzhanadze and her new government will have to come to terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, who has been quietly, slowly but relentlessly putting the squeeze on Georgia to toe his Kremlin line.

Mr. Shevardnadze bought time with Moscow by agreeing to allow Russia to retain military bases in his territory. This is of special importance to Russia because of the oil wealth of the neighboring Caspian basin and because of its long, bloody continued struggle to crush Islamic separatist guerillas in neighboring Chechnya.

But Mr. Shevardnadze also outraged Mr. Putin by allowing the U.S. army to operate within Georgia and to exercise with and train Georgian troops, especially in counterterrorism operations.

And on Sept. 16, he said Russia’s military operations against Chechen rebel strongholds in Georgian territory were really an attempt to destabilize his country and prevent it completing a major new pipeline being constructed across Georgian territory to carry Caspian oil to the Black Sea for Western markets.

Indeed, for all Mr. Shevardnadze’ sweeping unpopularity, Mrs. Burdzhanadze in her very first speech to the nation as its new leader Monday pledged to follow the same, strongly pro-Western policy he had. She signaled she wanted Georgia to join the European Union and NATO as soon as possible.

“Georgia will firmly continue to realize the foreign policy course that was chosen by the country from the first days of the restoration of its independence: the road to integration and the joining as soon as possible of European and Euro-Atlantic structures,” she said in her televised address.

“European structures” is diplomatic code-speak for the 15-nation European Union, which is about to expand to 25 nations and an extra 100 million people under its Copenhagen process. And “Euro-Atlantic structures” can only refer to the Brussels-based and U.S.-led NATO alliance. Back in 2001, President George W. Bush approved the alliance’s expansion to include three former Soviet republics: Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Mrs. Burdzhanadze’s comments signaled she wants Georgia to be the fourth.

But this ambition is hardly likely to be welcomed in Moscow, and Mr. Putin has at his disposal many levers to destabilize Mrs. Burdzhanadze. Abkhazia, a region historically part of Georgia but overwhelmingly Muslim, has been effectively self-ruled and out of Tbilisi’s control almost since independence, thanks to strong Russian support and military aid.

If necessary, Mr. Putin can certainly rely on Revival Party’s Aslan Abashidze who runs the Black Sea autonomous region of Adzharia, to make life difficult for Mrs. Burdzhanadze. Moscow built up Mr. Abashidze to undermine Mr. Shevardnadze, then approved, at least temporarily, a political deal between them. During the current crisis, he rushed back to Moscow for consultations, a move widely seen by Mrs. Burdzhandze’s supporters as exploring ways to block her and her democratic coalition from taking power.

Mrs. Burdzhanadze is off to a strong start, but she has a long and winding road to walk.

Martin Sieff is senior news analyst for United Press International.

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