For Georgians who remember the chaotic birth of their nation from the ruins of the Soviet Empire, recent events are painfully familiar. Allegations of rigged elections earlier this month have brought as many as 40,000 angry, impoverished citizens into the streets; they are demanding the removal of veteran President Edouard Shevardnadze and complaining of endemic corruption, unpaid wages and lack of basic utilities. Increasing numbers of nervous, armed police have been rushed into Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. And just like the last spate of unrest, in 1993, the teetering government seems to be considering turning to military factions for support, and even to former colonial power Russia. "Ten years on, the world has changed so much and Georgia has changed so little," laments Zurab Paliashvili, a former parliamentarian. "Same problems, only worse."
That's an exaggeration. So far, there's been no bloodshed. But Shevardnadze warned last week that the protests had brought Georgia "to the brink of civil war." Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili called on all Georgians to "declare civil disobedience to the Shevardnadze regime." The prospect of instability has rung alarm bells in the United States, which has made a major diplomatic investment in an oil pipeline from the Caspian port of Baku to the Mediterranean, running through Georgian territory. The pipeline, to be completed next year, will open a major source of strategically important non-Middle Eastern oil from the Caspian Sea for Western markets--unless political unrest delays its completion.
Unfortunately, there's no quick fix. A decade of crony capitalism has left the country an economic basket case; two of Georgia's richest regions have split away from Tbilisi's authority, and Shevardnadze himself has survived three assassination attempts. The trigger for the latest protests was this month's election victory for Shevardnadze's party in a vote that international observers described as "deeply flawed." Levan Ramishvili, director of Tbilisi's Liberty Institute, a human-rights NGO, cites cases of election observers being beaten by police, the burning of an opposition party's offices and ballot stuffing in the southern city of Batumi. David Berdzenishvili, chairman of the Republican Party of Georgia, says that his car was stopped as he returned from a disrupted election rally in Batumi and his skull fractured by club-wielding thugs. Now, his voice hoarse from a day of shouting at the protests in Tbilisi, he calls on the West to "pressure Shevardnadze to leave or recognize the real results of the election."
The unrest is becoming a showdown between Shevardnadze and Saakashvili, a radical pro-U.S. reformer and demagogue who has vowed to jail the 75-year-old president and mount a countrywide crackdown on corruption. The latter at least seems a good idea, but Saakashvili's firebrand politics have united everyone with something to hide, including most of Georgia's political elite, bureaucracy and police chiefs. Shevardnadze seems to have formed an alliance of convenience with his old rival Aslan Abashidze, president of the breakaway Georgian republic of Adzharia. Last week Abashidze did a whirlwind diplomatic tour of neighboring countries, apparently to drum up support for Shevardnadze. He also stopped off in Moscow, raising the prospect that Shevardnadze may appeal to the Kremlin for military support from Russian Army bases inside Georgia, as he did in 1993 when Tbilisi's food supplies were cut off by protesters.
That worries Washington, which has tried hard to wean the Caucasus away from Moscow's orbit. Under a $300 million training program, Georgian military officers are being equipped and coached by U.S. instructors in counterterror operations against allegedly Qaeda-linked Chechen separatists. And that military presence may yet increase. At a Nov. 4 conference at the U.S. military's European command in Stuttgart, top military brass were briefed on the options for deploying U.S. troops to guard the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.
The good news for Shevardnadze is that time, and the elements, are on his side. The Tbilisi evenings are turning bitterly cold, thinning the crowds. "People are getting tired," says Malkhaz Songulashvili, a community leader who has been bringing tea, coffee and rolls to protesters and riot troops since the protest began. Saakashvili's dire threats to "force out the regime" may be signs of desperation; his refusal to make tactical alliances among Georgia's politicians have left him with few friends apart from the Tbilisi crowds. The bad news is that even if this protest fizzles, the underlying problems which make Georgia's politics so explosive will remain.