People Power in Georgia

The peaceful overthrow of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze on Sunday recalls similar popular uprisings in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the ouster of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Both the Serbian uprising and the Georgian one occurred after elections in which the democratic opposition was clearly the victor. Mr. Shevardnadze's rigging of Nov. 2 parliamentary elections was the spark that set off massive street demonstrations that led to his resignation. The demonstrators, pro-Western democrats, received training from their Serbian counterparts as well as from Western-supported nongovernmental organizations.

But euphoria over the victory of a city-based, pro-Western political class is tempered by the challenges that await the opposition-turned-government. The South Carolina-sized country of 4.4 million people has three small pro-Russian breakaway regions - Abkhazia, Adzharia, and South Ossetia - that are unlikely to submit to the new central government. The war in neighboring Chechnya often spills over into Georgian territory. In a country where family and clan loyalties still reign supreme, it is not certain that the new rulers will be able to avoid the corruption that eventually undermined Shevardnadze's credibility.

The instability in Georgia exemplifies that of the entire Caucasian- Central Asian land mass between the Mediterranean Sea and China. Most of the former Soviet republics have succumbed to corrupt dictatorships run by ex-Soviet politicians.

The entire region is of enormous strategic interest to the United States as both the location of oil reserves and as the epicenter of terrorism. Al Qaeda roams from Pakistan to Chechnya. Russia shares the same interests, setting the stage both for US-Russian rivalry and cooperation.

Georgia sits astride a crucial oil-pipeline route over which oil from the rich Caspian Sea reserves can flow without going through Iran or Russia. That, and an affinity for Shevardnadze, who as Soviet foreign minister helped end the cold war, led the US to pump $1 billion into the small republic over the past 10 years.

That memory of Shevardnadze's role in ending 40 years of tension in Europe kept him popular in the West. But while at first he brought stability to Georgia - then disintegrating in violence following its independence in 1989 from the Soviet Union - Shevardnadze was unable to revive the economy or bring an end to lawlessness and successionist movements. His increasing reliance on a corrupt and incompetent inner circle of family and friends proved his undoing.

Still, he left office without bloodshed, just as he helped the Berlin Wall come down without bloodshed, and both times he revealed his true colors.

Both the US and Russia played constructive roles in helping the Georgian people through this peaceful transition of power. Lasting peace, however, will require a lot more US and Russian cooperation to persuade all that nation's peoples to settle their differences through the political process and not with the use of violence.

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