Georgian Revolution

23 November 2003

Transaucasia: Two Down and One To Go

By Gwynne Dyer

“By his resignation, he avoided spilling blood in the country,” said Mikhail Saakashvili, the opposition leader who finally ended President Eduard Shevardnadze’s 30-year career as the boss of Georgia on Sunday. Twelve years after the death of the old Soviet Union, the westernmost of the three Transcaucasian republics has at last shaken off the grip of the old Communist mafia. With Armenia already well into its post-Communist era, this leaves only Azerbaijan to go. That may be trickier, however, for Azerbaijan is where the oil is.

A lot of the credit for the peaceful transition in Georgia must go to the disciplined crowds who protested in front of the parliament buildings in Tbilisi every day since the rigged elections on 2 November, and to the soldiers and police who made it clear that they would not open fire on the people to defend Shevardnadze’s position. But the United States is also due some credit for finally calling time on the old scoundrel, for its condemnation of Shevardnadze’s shameless manipulation of the parliamentary election was unusually blunt.

“The elections do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people,” said US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, “but instead reflect massive vote fraud in Ajaria and other Georgian regions. Specifically the parallel vote tally and exit polling conducted by reputable independent organisations differ significantly from the results released by the Central Election Committee and these discrepancies in our view reveal an extensive manipulation of the vote count.”

Shevardnadze had often rigged elections before without facing that sort of criticism from the US government. Washington was actually saying to the Georgians: we’re washing our hands of Shevardnadze – take him down if you can. Take him down they did, and it is safe to assume that the Bush administration had already decided that it can live happily with the man who is likely to end up as president instead, Mikhail Saakashvili. But that does not make Saakashvili a mere puppet, or invalidate the fact that there has been a genuine outbreak of democracy in Georgia.

For Washington, policy towards the Transcaucasian republics (and the other ex-Soviet republics east of the Caspian Sea) is driven by three considerations. Access to the vast new oil reserves in the region and ensuring that the vital pipelines pass through friendly countries is paramount. Enlisting the aid of these countries in the ‘war on terror’ is also a high priority. And democracy would be nice, other things being equal.

In Georgia, happily, other things are more or less equal. Indeed, Shevardnadze, far from being a guarantee of stability, had become a seriously destabilising influence, for under his rule Georgia, once the most prosperous of all the fifteen Soviet republics, has descended into desperate poverty and decay while a sleek minority grew rich amid the ruins. Georgians were furious at the corruption all around them, but Shevardnadze did nothing to curb it, for distributing favours and privileges to his supporters, and above all to his own clan, was how he kept himself in power.

It was how Shevardnadze originally rose to power as the head of the Georgian Communist Party in 1972. Indeed, it was how almost all of the Party potentates in the non-European parts of the old Soviet Union really secured their power: behind the facade of a modern totalitarian state, they built their local political machines on patronage and clan loyalties. The corruption did not reach such flagrant levels while the Party still ruled, but it is why the old Communist bosses survived to re-emerge as the new rulers in almost all the ex-Soviet republics of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia.

Shevardnadze was off in Moscow as Soviet foreign minister in 1985-90, and did some fine work in ensuring the peaceful end of the Cold War, but when he returned to Georgia as president in 1992 (thanks to a bloody coup) he reverted to his old methods and ruled Georgia with an iron hand for eleven more years. Now, at 75, he has been peacefully replaced by an American-educated democrat less than half his age. About time, too.

In 1992 all three Transcaucasian republics emerged from Soviet rule, but their old Communist Party bosses were soon back in power, now freed of the old Soviet-era restraints. All three countries went into social and economic free-fall, experiencing levels of corruption, poverty and violence that they could not have imagined in the old days. And now, perhaps, they are starting to recover.

Armenia was the first to dump its Soviet-era boss, replacing Karen Demirchan with Robert Kocharian in a free election in 1998. Now Georgia is doing the same: new parliamentary elections are due in 45 days, and a presidential election to choose Shevardnadze’s successor will follow soon after. Both countries are still desperately poor, but they may finally be on the mend.

That leaves only Azerbaijan, where Haydar Aliyev ruled as Communist Party boss and then as president from the 1970s until his death last August — and where his son Ilham Aliyev was duly elected president in his place in October. But then, Azerbaijan has oil, so the former Communist elite there has more money to bribe its collaborators with. It follows perfectly logically that Azerbaijan’s people are the poorest in the region despite the oil, and that its government is deeply repressive and corrupt. And that the US State Department keeps its views on the honesty of Azerbaijan’s elections to itself.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Shevardnadze…Georgia”; and “Shevardnadze…too”)